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Charlotte von Mahlsdorf's life story is so unbelievable it reads like pulp fiction. But her struggle to live as a transgender woman under both Nazis and Communists, through both World War II and the Cold War, is a true, morally complex tale. Recast as the plot of I Am My Own Wife, a Pulitzer-winning play coming to the Adrienne Arsht Center this week, it reaches beyond time and place to remind us all of the cost of freedom.
Born Lothar Berfelde on March 18, 1928, in Berlin, von Mahlsdorf was a "boy with the soul of a girl" whose father, Max Berfelde, was a member of the Nazi party and a violent despot. He despised his son's effeminate character and regularly beat him.
When the Nazis rose to power, Max became a party leader in the Mahlsdorf area of Berlin. As his son displayed an interest in feminine pursuits, he severely punished him, even forcing him to join the Hitler Youth in 1942 to straighten him out.
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The young teenager's stint in Hitler's vision of a utopian master race didn't take. He left home with his supportive mother, Gretchen Gaupp Berfelde. Max, enraged, threatened to kill his son and all of his siblings. Instead, it was Lothar who got the upper hand — killing Max with a rolling pin as he slept.
"This woman had balls," says Stuart Meltzer, artistic director of Zoetic Stage, which is staging the play. "To find a sense of freedom in really oppressive circumstances like the Nazis and later the Communists in East Berlin and discover and remain true to her identity really blew my mind."
Written by Doug Wright, and snagging a Pulitzer for Drama and a Tony Award for Best Play when it was first produced in 2004, I Am My Own Wife is being presented as part of Light/The Humanity Project, a three-month, countywide collaboration focused on Holocaust education and the protection of human rights against bigotry and hate. The project culminates with Ballet Austin's performance November 3 and 4 at the Arsht Center.
Zoetic's presentation opens this Thursday, unveiling how von Mahlsdorf triumphed, in Wright's words, "over two of the most oppressive regimes the Western world has ever known — the Nazis and Commies — in a pair of high heels."
The script pulls no punches, and this production stars Carbonell Award-winning actor Tom Wahl in the title role. Wahl also portrays more than 30 other figures who played a part in von Mahlsdorf's extraordinary life in a performance the director calls a "tour de force."
"Tom, in my opinion, is one of the most versatile actors in South Florida," Meltzer says. "When I read the play, there was no one else that I thought of for the role."
Von Mahlsdorf remains a controversial figure, in part over the murder of her father. That complex persona is one of the great draws of the play, Wahl says.
"I read everything I could find about Charlotte. She's such an enigma. I think that's very attractive," Wahl says. "I feel like I've developed a sort of love affair with her."
After the murder, von Mahlsdorf was sent to a psychiatric hospital and sentenced to four years as an "antisocial juvenile delinquent." When the war ended, she was released and escaped being summarily shot in an act that, Meltzer says, was partly fate and partly an act of human kindness.
Von Mahlsdorf became a collector of antique furniture picked up from secondhand dealers and the apartments of Jews shipped to concentration camps. She later founded her own museum, the Gründerzeit Museum, which opened in 1960.
Zoetic has created a three-story light box as part of a set design to capture von Mahlsdorf's obsession with period furniture.
"I'm really excited by Michael McKeever's set design," Meltzer says. "It's incredibly artsy and includes a grandfather clock, a chaise longue, and a gramophone. It's like an energy box and adds to the production of the play."
For his part, Wahl says his biggest effort was in giving distinctive voices to each of the dozens of people he portrays. "Well, the challenge is trying to make each of the different characters separate even when some of them have only a line or two of dialogue."
The play presents plenty of temporal challenges for both directors and the actor, covering almost 60 years of von Mahlsdorf's life by skipping back and forth in time.
The story also challenges viewers by presenting the complex moral choices she made. Her tale is packed with ethical quandaries, including questions surrounding her cooperation with East German Communists and the Stazi, their brutal secret police.
"It covers her life from the time she was 14 until her 70s," Meltzer says. "Some of her choices were questionable, but the playwright relates her journey in a way that recognizes her not as a freak but as a real human being. He raises questions about her choices that he smartly leaves for the audience to answer."
However audience members judge the transgender icon, her tale will make a lasting impression, Wahl promises.
"Charlotte lived her life on her terms and did what she had to do to survive the two most repressive regimes the Western world has ever known. I think, for better or for worse, 'to thine own self be true,'" he says.