The Wadsworth stage is now hosting one of its most offbeat, idiosyncratic tenants — the character of Charlotte Mahlsdorf, a notorious East German transvestite who managed to outwit both the Nazis and Communists during WWII. Portrayed with consummate artistry by Jefferson Mays, under Moises Kaufman’s penetrating direction, Charlotte is so charismatic that every moment of her political and personal journey is provocative, fascinating entertainment.
Mahlsdorf, as playwright Doug Wright readily admits, presented a terrifying literary challenge because of her complexity and moral ambiguity, and before he completed the work that won him Tony and Pulitzer prizes, he spent six years stymied by writer’s block struggling to clarify this self-proclaimed member of the “third sex” — a female spirit trapped in a male body.
“Wife” begins by painting Mahlsdorf’s career as a museum owner and compulsive collector, and the amazing set by Derek McLane shows the fruits of her loving labor against a tall rear theater wall, exquisitely lit by David Lander — clocks, gramophones, porcelain lamps and vases, records, crystal chandeliers, polyphones, pictures and credenzas. Posed against her cherished antique Edison phonograph, the woman in black peasant dress, black kerchief, black stockings and black, heavy-heeled shoes — with a pearl necklace — is a hypnotic presence. Quietly playing in the background is an old, scratchy recording of Jerome Kern’s “Why Do I Love You?” from “Showboat,” an ideal, ironic title for a man/woman whose essence is impossible to pin down.
Charlotte’s story is remarkable because she had the survival instincts to cope with Nazi and Communist regimes, refusing to carry a weapon or wear a uniform during the last days of the war. Wright, who smoothly incorporates himself into the action as author and interviewer, expresses his admiration for this feat by observing, “I grew up gay in the Bible Belt; I can only begin to imagine what it must have been like during the Third Reich.”
Jefferson Mays (winner in 2004 of the actor Tony) stubbornly resists temptations to overdo what is already a larger-than-life personality. Charlotte was born Lothar Berfelde in 1928, and Mays fills in necessary details, particularly a relationship with the child’s lesbian aunt “who never wore ladies’ clothes” and told him regretfully, “Did you know that nature has dared to play a joke on us? You should’ve been a girl and I should’ve been a man.”
One-person productions using dozens of voices always run the risk of becoming hard to follow or evolving into self-conscious exercises that sacrifice heart and soul. Under the expert, tactful guidance of Kaufman (writer and director of the “Laramie Project”), Mays triumphantly succeeds in making 35 characters distinctive. Charlotte’s German accent is as real and natural as her Southern twang, and her version of speech by American soldiers is so absolutely on the mark that it elicits laughs of admiration and pleasure.
One of the evening’s most chilling incidents centers on Mahlsdorf’s hatred of her Nazi father, a man so monstrous that he was even kicked out of the Nazi party for his extreme views. Charlotte brutally — and understandably — beats him to death with a rolling pin and is sent to a youth prison. In a twist of fate, Russian bombs destroy the prison and Charlotte escapes.
For a long while, Wright focuses on Charlotte’s audacity. When gay life is banned and bars closed, she organizes a salon in her museum where gays can secretly meet and mingle, where “every piece of furniture was always in use … and anyone with an interest in sadomasochism could have a room to themselves for a few hours.”
The central difficulty in preserving Charlotte as a consistently valorous figure is one that troubled author Wright at first — the knowledge that Charlotte collaborated with the Stasi, the Communist secret police. Act two absorbingly shows her turning in a close friend, Alfred Kirschner, after they illegally sell clocks to American soldiers, and virtuously insisting that Kirschner urged her to renounce him and save herself. (“Why should we both go to prison?”) But despite her circuitous denials about being an informant, the story makes clear that she did collaborate with the enemy and leads to a despairing emotional disclosure by Wright at the end: “I need to believe in her speeches as much as she does!”
It would be easy, in the face of mounting evidence, to change the perception of Charlotte from enchanting eccentric to villain. But Mays’ portrayal is too emotionally all-encompassing for such black-and-white pigeonholing. Lambasted by an accusing American woman, she protests pathetically, “Please, I am old … I am tired.” She falls back on vulnerability, or responds with wit, skating past simplistic psychiatric observations labeling her autistic and emerging with her marvelous mystique intact.