'I Am My Own Wife' Explores the Complicated Life of Charlotte von Mahlsdorf

Sep 26, 2017

Charlotte von Mahlsdorf in 1994.
Credit berolino / Wikimedia

There are many stories of bravery and survival from the second world war - from soldiers risking everything to save their comrades to everyday people helping others escape. But one story of survival is perhaps not as well known - and that may be because Charlotte von Mahlsdorf hid herself in plain sight during the Nazi regime.

Born Lothar Berfelde in 1928, von Mahlsdorf was a self-described transvestite. She survived both the war and life in East Germany as openly transgender and was a beacon of hope to other European LGBTQ people throughout her life.

That life inspired the one person play, I Am My Own Wife, in 2004, which won the Pulitzer, the Tony, and the Drama Desk awards for best play.

In the play, as in real-life, Charlotte von Mahlsdorf was a complex character. 

"There's a lot of things that are brought into the play where you begin to understand why she did what she did and you also understand that maybe she didn't create quite so much harm to people, except of course maybe to her dear friend," says Isabelle Kralj, Theatre Gigante founder and director of the play.

Theatre Gigante's production of I Am My Own Wife opens this Thursday and stars Michael Stebbins, who plays a total of 35 characters including von Mahlsdorf.

Stebbins admits it's been difficult to craft each person without creating caricatures: "I don’t want them all to sound like Colonel Klink. I hope not everyone’s going to go, oh, Hogan's Heroes! But as an actor, it’s hard to put on a voice in this play. Even if they appear for 30 seconds, they have to be fully realized."