“I Am My Own Wife” displays heroism at its most vulnerable



"I Am My Own Wife" will play at Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont Ave, until Dec. 10. 

By Arts & Culture Reporter

A bright white door stood stark against a pitch black theater before a burst of movement interrupted the silence. Dressed in a black petticoat and apron, Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, a self-described German transvestite, boldly entered, ready to tell her darkest secrets to Doug Wright, a virtual stranger obsessed with writing her story. 

This 2016 production is a reimagining of the Tony Award- winning play by Doug Wright, but the journey of von Mahlsdorf is not new to theater company About Face Theatre, which originally put on “I Am My Own Wife,” starring Jefferson Mays, 13 years ago at the Museum of Contemporary Art. 

Von Mahlsdorf’s story reminds the audience of the world’s progress while remaining true to the raw pain and experiences she had to endure as a transgender woman under the Nazi and Communist regimes in East Berlin. 

Throughout the play, underlying themes of heroism in the face of death, destruction and change remind us that the most powerful moments are the hardest to face.

Miraculously, von Mahlsdorf, played by Delia Kropp, persevered against the odds. After the end of World War II, she opened her own museum of “everyday things” in Berlin, called a Grunderzeit, which became popular in the city. The basement is anything but ordinary,  serving as a safe space to the LGBT community in East Berlin for decades.

Kropp’s interpretation of von Mahlsdorf is strong and sturdy, excluding slow dialogue and character development. Unfortunately, the narrative of Wright, played by Scott Duff, weakens the story. He appears every once in a while to drive the story forward, but it seems out of place. Along with Duff, there are two other male actors trying to play 10 different characters that are either vital or irrelevant to the overarching story of von Mahlsdorf, which makes it difficult to track the time jumps as the play moves from 1943 to 1993. Despite this, there are also moments of beautiful choreography as the actors pivot, circle and sit in unison. 

Von Mahlsdorf’s story is inspiring to watch unfold, despite awkwardly placed jokes and exaggerated dialogue. The minimalist set design of a table and chairs, lamps and a big white door allow room to imagine a new setting with every flip of the script. More importantly, it gives the actors freedom to let the audience see their vulnerability in a true story full of hate.

“I Am My Own Wife” stuns in a way that can’t be felt until the very end when audiences learn of von Mahlsdorf’s death and sticking with her unreliable narrative until the end is a challenge. But, just like von Mahlsdorf, emotional grievances shift with time, and one must be willing to move  forward when change comes.