Back in the early '90s, playwright Doug Wright conducted a series of interviews with Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, a transvestite who had survived, and thrived, both in Nazi Germany and under the Communist regime in East Berlin. For Wright, who grew up gay in America's Bible Belt, von Mahlsdorf appeared to be gay-icon material: an outsider who lived life on her own terms in a time and place where it was very dangerous to do so.
However, what Wright discovered, and what he reveals in his play I Am My Own Wife, was something a little more complicated. It seems von Mahlsdorf's astonishing survival probably came as a result of informing on others to the Stasi, East Germany's brutal secret police.
"Feet of clay" is a phrase used to describe a hidden character flaw in a widely admired person, and for Shakespeare by the Sea's co-artistic director Elizabeth Murphy, it's an apt expression to describe von Mahlsdorf. "Charlotte was an amazing creature, but it turned out she wasn't who he"—playwright Wright—"thought she was," Murphy explains. "He discovered that she wasn't just some sort of perfect icon, but a flawed human being. Personally, I think that's what makes this play so interesting."
Murphy saw I Am My Own Wife when it first played in New York in 2003, and for more than a decade she's wanted to stage it in Halifax. It's also been on her wish-list to work with Halifax actor Stewart Legere. "I've been a great admirer of Stewart's work, so I was delighted when the stars aligned so that we could do this show with him as our fall Shakespeare by the Sea production."
Murphy describes the play as "a one-woman show for a man," with one actor playing more than 40 different characters, including the playwright himself. For Legere, the biggest challenge of the role is not the sheer number of characters he plays, but the number of accents he needs to use. "On top of German dialects, I play people from New York, the Midwest, Paris. It's a huge challenge, but a lot of fun."
Legere calls I Am My Own Wife "a beautiful piece of text" that deals with sexuality, gender identity and equality, as well as the politics of being outside the mainstream. He agrees with Murphy's assertion that von Mahlsdorf's imperfections are what make the play fascinating. "I think it's often the case that a writer starts a project with an idea of how things are going to go—we're all in love with our own ideas. But sometimes there's new information that makes that idea not the most fascinating thing about the story, and that new information makes the story better.
"In this case, the playwright was forced to give up his perfect—and potentially boring—heroine for someone who is human. It must have been a bittersweet feeling, but it makes a terrific play."
I Am My Own Wife
October 29-November 8, The Bus Stop Theatre, Tuesdays-Sundays 8pm, Saturdays 4pm, Sunday Nov. 8 4pm, $20/$18/$15
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