I AM MY OWN WIFE History
In 2002, Director Moises Kaufman and Playwright Doug Wright approached About Face Theatre Company with an idea: They wanted to develop a play about Charlotte von Mahlsdorf – an individual who survived both the Nazi and Communistic regimes in Berlin as a transgender woman. After great success in Chicago, the play - which would be known as I Am My Own Wife, moved to New York, eventually winning the 2004 Tony Award for Best Play. The star of the one-man show, Jefferson Mays, brought home the 2004 Tony Award for Best Leading Actor in a Play.
This event in itself was making history. Wright and Kaufman brought attention to a story that seems impossible. A transgender woman surviving both the Nazis and the Communists while remaining in East Berlin is difficult to even fathom, and the story spread across the country.
However, About Face Theatre did not stop there. This 2016/2017 season, AFT made history yet again with a newly reimagined production of I Am My Own Wife, starring Delia Kropp, a local trans actress, in the leading role.
About Face Theatre’s Powerful Adaptation
Directed by Andrew Volkoff, the play features Charlotte (Delia Kropp) re-telling her story, beginning at a young age with her family at the start of the Nazi Regime, where she wore the name of Lothar Berfelde, and ending in the early 2000s, in her museum of antique furniture she collected through the years in East Berlin. Slowly we learn of the difficult decisions she had to make in order to survive, as well as those she lost along the way. We begin to realize that the kind, elderly woman standing before us is a symbol of strength and courage, and by the end, I know I personally found myself speechless at what I had just experienced.
Volkoff’s enhanced concept also includes three other actors to play the various roles mentioned in the piece ranging from Charlotte’s father to Nazi SS Officers. The production features Matt Holsfeind as Man #1, and Ninos Babba as Man #2. In addition, Scott Duff takes the stage in the role of Playwright Doug Wright, acting as the driving force for the story through his interviews with Charlotte and pure desire to understand how she survived such an impossible situation.
While I did not have the opportunity to see the critically-acclaimed one-man show, the addition of the three actors certainly added to this particular production, especially in the painful moments of Charlotte reliving unwanted memories. One scene in particular is a famous story for her about how she murders her own father, Max Berfelde, with a rolling pin. In AFT’s current production, Holsfeind embodies abusive man of the Nazi Party, and portrays the character with a perfect amount of force and terror.
In 1944, when Germany evacuated women and children due to fear of air raids, Max forces his child to choose between himself and Charlotte’s mother. Out of fear for her mother and the rest of her family, Charlottle murders her father, and Kropp played the horrific and challenging moment with a lovely sense of tension and fear.
Volkoff’s Clever Direction
Cleverly led by Volkoff, the design team utilizes the small, intimate setting of Theater Wit to draw us into the story. The interviews between Wright and Charlotte take place within her furniture shop, and Set Designer Brian Prather filled the space with beautiful antique furniture that Charlotte clearly could have gathered through her travels. While the store takes center stage, there are four chairs on the outskirts, which is where the actors would rest when not on stage.
Allowing the audience to see each actor change character breaks down the boundary, and made for an excellent addition to the play. The freedom allowed for Charlotte to tell her story, and actors could seamlessly weave on and off the stage, adding to her tale and allowing it to come to life.
Acting Infuses Honesty Into the Story
As a pair, Kropp and Duff showcase an excellent chemistry that becomes an honest friendship. Duff portrays Wright with a beautiful amount of excitement and curiosity that grows over the course of the play. I believed his pure investment in Charlotte’s story, and every time he returned to Germany to continue his interviews, Duff increased the sense of desire and passion for the story that clearly consumed him. Kropp was simply lovely, and added an incredible honesty to the story in this historical moment as a trans actress playing the famous transgender woman.
The role is a difficult one, forcing the actress to play various ages and moments from the early 1940s through the interviews in the early 2000s. However, Kropp tackled the challenge with grace, and created an exciting story I was eager to watch unfold.
Cleverly designed, beautifully acted, and newly imagined, I Am My Own Wife is a play you do not want to miss.
Through December 10, 2016
Wednesdays at 7:30pm
Thursdays at 7:30pm
Fridays at 7:30pm
Saturdays at 7:30pm
Sundays at 3:00pm
Run Time: 2 hours, with intermission
1229 W Belmont Avenue
About the Author:
Lauren Katz is a freelance director and dramaturge, and new to the Chicago Theatre Scene. She recently moved from Washington DC, where she worked with Mosaic Theater Company of DC in Company Management, as well as directed around town with various theaters.
This review was excerpted in Theatre in Chicago.