Was it luck, pluck, cunning or something more sinister that enabled Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, a German transvestite, to survive not one but two great scourges of 20th-century history? The answer remains elusive in “Quills” scribe Doug Wright’s captivating new solo play, which features an utterly spellbinding performance by Jefferson Mays.
It is subtitled, somewhat defensively, “studies for a play” about Mahlsdorf. And it is indeed a somewhat loose collage of scenes enacted between pairs of characters — often the playwright himself and Mahlsdorf — and solo passages for the curious subject at its center, who recounts the details of her extraordinary life in gently fractured English.
Moises Kaufman’s unfailingly smart and elegant direction brings a helpful cohesion and a seamless flow to the performance. Mays flits between personalities with deceptive ease, bringing such clarity to the transitions, and such distinctive coloring to each persona, that there is neither confusion nor a distracting sense of theatrical fireworks. It’s a bravura turn that is humble and refreshingly unshowy.
Wright adapted the play from news reports, letters and a series of interviews he conducted with von Mahlsdorf, who was born Lothar Berfelde but exchanged boyhood for girlhood early on, under the gruff encouragement of a similarly inclined aunt. Von Mahlsdorf’s peculiar history came to light when the Berlin Wall fell, and it was discovered that this gentle old cross-dresser, who presided over a museum in East Berlin containing a stunning collection of furniture, clocks and gramophones dating exclusively from the last decade of the 19th century, had somehow survived and thrived under the thumb of one of the 20th century’s most notoriously repressive regimes.
Wright himself plays a role in the story, which is presented in pseudodocumentary fashion, as if to underscore the authenticity of its details. After meeting von Mahlsdorf, Wright sends a letter proposing to write a play about her. “I grew up gay in the Bible Belt,” he says, “I can only begin to imagine what it must have been like during the Third Reich. The Nazis, and then the communists? It seems to me you’re an impossibility. You shouldn’t even exist.”
As Charlotte begins demurely telling her tale, the kindly, slightly vague gleam in her eyes strikes a welcoming, self-effacing note, and Mays’ ginger movements touchingly evoke the diminishments of old age. Charlotte’s story initially appears to be a simple tale — as simple as such can be — of good enduring and outdistancing evil, with the aid of perseverance, a little luck and maybe a minor miracle or two.
Charlotte tells of a brutal childhood at the hands of an abusive father whose reign of terror only ended when young Lothar took up a rolling pin and battered him to death while he slept. Sent away to an institution, Lothar was freed when Soviet bombs destroyed the building. Later, rounded up with other stray men for a firing squad, he was given a last-minute reprieve by a sympathetic SS officer.
Charlotte’s endurance under the Soviet regime seems no less extraordinary, as does her fabulous collection of furniture, arrayed in a breathtaking panorama along the back wall of Derek McLane’s exquisite set. As Charlotte lovingly recounts the history of the gramophone, David Lander’s lighting delicately picks out the flowerlike horns among the piles of bric-a-brac, and when she speaks with equal fascination of her beloved period clocks, their faces in turn gleam forth from the darkness.
The first act concludes with Charlotte receiving a medal from the newly reunified German government, for her “steadfast preservation of a noted period in German industrial design.” Charlotte, whose tales of the clandestine struggles of gays and lesbians during her lifetime form particularly funny and revealing segments of the play, accepts with gratitude. In her simple English she explains, “I thought it’s good because other people see that a transvestite can work.”
But this heartwarming moment is followed by a chilling revelation. As the files of East Germany’s secret police, the feared and loathed Stasi, are opened, it is learned that Charlotte herself was, like many other everyday Germans, a paid informant. Soon other details of her story are being called into question, and the play gradually deepens and darkens. What at first seemed an entertaining, uplifting piece of cultural arcana evolves into a haunting exploration of the elusive nature of truth and slippery moral compromises.
As Charlotte herself bluntly puts it in a revelation that is more telling than she may realize, “Museum. Furniture. Men. This is the order in which I have lived my life.” She goes on to recount a funny story about passing up a sexual encounter to be on time to pick up an antique clock, but the admission has more disturbing implications, too. After all, German citizens who prioritized their lives differently — putting men or women at the top of the list — may have paid for it with their lives. This gentle-hearted soul’s survival, while inspiring on the surface, may have been partly caused by a dedication to something other than the welfare of her fellow man. While others lost their lives, did Charlotte save her own by dedicating hers to artifacts?
Wright’s clear affection for his subject doesn’t prevent him from suggesting such disquieting ideas and hinting at possible evasions in Charlotte’s narrative. As one of Wright’s friends points out, Charlotte’s story is almost too dramatic, “like some Cold War thriller written by Armistead Maupin.” But its allure is hard for him to resist, as he says in one of the play’s few passages that strike a rather too pointed note: “I need to believe in her stories as much as she does!”
But the ambiguities in Charlotte’s story, while troubling to her admirers, only make her a more fascinating theatrical character. The sweet old lady who is really a sturdy old man is a symbol of the contradictions, concealment and compromises that color even the most mundane lives. And he — or she — is embodied with due attention to all these nuances by an actor giving a breakthrough performance of uncommon artistry. That Charlotte von Mahlsdorf survived to relate her remarkable history is a little miracle, but even the littlest miracles sometimes need to be helped along by a smidgen of self-interest. As Charlotte’s aunt once admonished her, “Never forget that you’re living in the lion’s den. Sometimes, you must howl with the wolves.”