Then the Berlin Wall fell, Germany found an unusual celebrity in Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, a transvestite who became an icon of survival. Only she was not what she seemed. And neither is "I Am My Own Wife."
Doug Wrightís Tony- and Pulitzer-winning drama is the story of Mahlsdorf, born Lothar Berfelde, who endured both the Nazi and Communist regimes with grace and charm.
The play is also about a different Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, a deceptively mild person who survived both World War II and the Cold War only through violence and betrayal.
And, remarkably, "I Am My Own Wife" is also not Mahlsdorf's story at all. It is the story of Doug Wright, the playwright himself and a character in the play. Wright was at first delighted by his "discovery" of Mahlsdorf in the early 1990s (she died in 2002), excited at the possibility of using this aberration of history for a new play and then disillusioned and confused when the facts were not as clear as they first appeared.
If it were not for one brilliant device, Wright would come dangerously close to making himself the main character. You see, Wright cannot be the main character because all 35 characters are performed by only one man, Mark Nelson. An Obie Award winner (as Einstein in "Picasso at the Lapin Agile"), Nelsonís previous work at the Play House includes directing "The Last Night of Ballyhoo" in 1999 and Tina Howeís "Women in Flames" in last season's Next Stage Festival of New Plays.
"I Am My Own Wife," a one-person show performed entirely by a man in pearls, stands out in this first season chosen by new Cleveland Play House artistic director Michael Bloom. It is part of a larger challenge to attract a broader audience to what in recent years has been thought of as a conservative and uninspired institution.
That Mahlsdorf and Wright are openly homosexual (which is true of protagonists in so many plays produced at other Cleveland theaters) marks it as a stunning departure for the Play House. Bloom is not worried that this will deter traditional CPH audiences.
"People are drawn to true stories no matter what their age or experience," Bloom says. "I think that this story is so utterly compelling that people are not going to be offended by it."
Except it's not a true story. Not entirely. This does not trouble director Anders Cato.
"Our lives are more complicated than that," Cato says. "Things are never as simple as right or wrong and true or false. When we get to know Charlotte, we transcend judgement. And it is not so easy to judge a survivor."
"She's crafted herself a myth," adds actor Nelson. "I donít believe she's a fraud. You tell yourself a story, and over many years it becomes the truth."
As the performer, Nelson must believe the truth of the characters he's playing. And the voices and the mannerisms. He is working with a dialect coach to create subtle changes to the resonance of his voice. A small shift can evoke an entirely different personality. An American GI speaks from the belly, Mahlsdorf's Aunt Luise speaks from the chest.
"Charlotte doesnít put on a woman's voice," explains Nelson. "She has a sing-song, breathy sweetness. Feminine, but not female."
And therein lies the one great truth of this story. This man, this woman, Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, whoever she was, defied two of the most repressive governments of the 20th century, in heels.
"The chutzpah!" Nelson exclaims. "The sheer guts to be exactly who you are an original ó against the most terrifying odds. How do you hang onto your difference in a world that pounds us into sameness?"
"We leave the play with a complex idea of who she is," Cato adds, "and learn something about ourselves and our way of dealing."
Bloom agrees. "It's about survival," he says. "Most of this season "A Streetcar Named Desire," Lisa Kron's Well," even "Room Service" is about survival. These are plays that resonate with people, given recent traumatic events."
Traumatic events, the ailing economy, even the mediocre play selection by Bloom's predecessor have challenged the Play House's survival as well. Bold, challenging, controversial drama may be what the oldest regional theater in America needs to appear young again.
And that's the truth.
"I Am My Own Wife" runs Nov. 4 to 27 at the Cleveland Play House's Drury Theatre. Call (216) 795-7000 or visit www.clevelandplayhouse.com for more information.