The unrepaired tarnishes of history

‘I Am My Own Wife’ tells a story of individualism in times of oppression

by Sara Nicole Miller

She insists on preserving all her 19th-century furniture “as is,” embracing the everyday wear and tear symbolic of a fractured country that once was intact, invoking the magical fog of fact and myth that surrounds her own existence.

The Pulitzer Prize- and Tony Award-winning play “I Am My Own Wife” illuminates the whimsical and sobering life of Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, Berlin’s most notorious World War II-era transvestite.

Charlotte is a compulsive antique collector, storyteller and nonconformist, despite the troubling world around her. At age 16 she killed her abusive father, who was a Nazi official. Charlotte then faced stifling discrimination, imprisonment and even brushes with death under Nazism and communist Russia. But she survived it all while sporting a modest pair of heels and a conservative pearl necklace.

Actor Bradley Greenwald’s performance is an ambitious one. Along with the soft-mannered, unassuming Charlotte, he also plays 35 other characters in the one-actor performance.

The character shifts often are jolted and bewildering, jumping back and forth from tidbits of actual interviews involving Charlotte and the playwright to wartime air raids to encounters with the firing squad and back to reenactments that trace a lifetime through embellished conversations.

It’s an ambitious project, but Greenwald and director Joel Sass pull it off. Greenwald possesses an almost seamless chameleon quality, moving in and out of character with brilliantly choreographed demeanor and precision.

The set has a charming, mothballs-and-velvet type of elegance; and the play begins by inviting us into Charlotte’s own living room, brimming with grandfather clocks, oversized sets of charcoal file cabinets and Edison standard phonographs. It is through the nostalgic personification of these objects that her dizzy journey begins.

As she navigates her way through the stories of her miniature furniture treasures, something becomes clear: Like the possessions, she herself is an unlikely relic of the past. Classified by two totalitarian regimes as persona non grata, she nevertheless emerged from a decadeslong diplomatic chokehold.

“I Am My Own Wife” honors the true story of Charlotte’s dramatic and enchanting life. The performance not only sheds a reassuring light on

the resilience of the human spirit, but also breathes life back into the type of historical narrative that oppressive regimes often succeed in obliterating.