A Story of Survival

Living as a transgender woman during the nightmarish regimes of the Third Reich and the Soviets who ruled East Germany after World War II should have doomed Charlotte von Mahlsdorf to a tragic, possibly even short, life.  But she managed to not only survive, but thrive as an antiquarian with an amazing life story to tell.  But was her story simply a story to cover a more tragic reality?  Judge for yourself by watching I Am My Own Wife by Doug Wright and playing at the Omaha Community Playhouse.

Doug Wright has not written a biographical play.  This is a spoken biography with snatches of an autobiography tossed in as Wright, himself, is one of the 35 characters in the production.  Wright has a phenomenal gift for voice.  The conversations and monologues all sound completely natural and believable.  Unsurprising, as a great deal of them were culled from actual interviews he conducted with von Mahlsdorf.  But there’s a richness and power to the words that go beyond a mere interview and they suck the viewer in as von Mahlsdorf shares her fascinating life story.

Kimberly Faith Hickman provides yet another top of the line piece of direction with this play.  In the hands of a less capable director, the biographical nature of the show could cause it to become a little dry and draggy, but Faith Hickman keeps the pace brisk and knows how to strike the beats so the interviews and anecdotes pop and burst with a vibrant life of their own.  Her guidance of the play’s sole performer is entrancing as each character played by the actress is unique and well defined and helps pull the audience deeper into the tale.

I was particularly excited to see this show as I always relish the opportunity to see a new talent on the stage.  That being said, Natalie Weiss makes an epic debut at the Playhouse and does it, not with a bang, but with a whisper.

Weiss brings a quiet energy to her performance which is crucial for the primary character of von Mahlsdorf.  As von Mahlsdorf, Weiss is soft-spoken and unassuming, almost mesmeric.  Listening to von Mahlsdorf is like listening to your own grandmother as she has a warm and welcoming presence that can’t help but hook you in as she shares the story of her survival during one of history’s most horrific periods.  So closely do you identify with von Mahlsdorf that a lump may appear in your throat when the possibility that parts, perhaps all, of von Mahlsdorf’s life story could be works of fiction when official evidence from the Soviet regime of East Germany contradicts some of her personal story.

But Weiss’ skill isn’t limited to her handling of von Mahlsdorf.  Weiss proves herself a performer of great range and versatility as she assumes another 34 characters throughout the night.  Her changes are achieved effortlessly and subtly and accomplished through slight changes in posture, vocal timbre, accent, and energy focus.  The changes are also quite fluid as one character flows naturally into the next without smacking the audience over the head with the changeover.

Some of my favorite characters in Weiss’ repertoire were an intense Nazi commander who managed to retain a degree of humanity and spared von Mahlsdorf’s life from an execution squad; her depiction of von Mahlsdorf’s brutish father; her calm, no-nonsense aunt; Wright, himself, with a youthful exuberance and excitement at turning von Mahlsdorf’s life into a play; Wright’s very Southern friend, John; and a gregarious German TV talk show host who interviewed von Mahlsdorf when the controversy of her cooperation with East Germany’s Russian regime was national news.

Jim Othuse’s lights add so much to this play.  He utilizes an almost sepia effect with the lights so that one feels he or she is looking at a living, old time photograph, though he also achieves a nice disco effect when von Mahlsdorf visits a homosexual nightclub and achieves a TV studio lighting effect for the talk show scene.  Darin Kuehler’s properties accentuate the production with the period correct, antique models, pictures, and phonograph that make up von Mahlsdorf’s museum.  Amanda Fehlner’s simple black dress gives von Mahlsdorf that grandmotherly feel.  John Gibilisco’s ambient sounds always enhance von Mahlsdorf’s recollections from the fighter planes of WW II to gunshots to the disco beat of the nightclub.

Ultimately this story is an incredible tale of survival, but the question the show asks is how did von Mahlsdorf survive?  Was her personal story the truth of her survival or were her stories her means of surviving awful personal choices she was forced to make?  Or is the truth somewhere in between?  That answer is left to you.

I Am My Own Wife plays at the Omaha Community Playhouse through Nov 15. Showtimes are Thurs-Sat at 7:30pm and Sundays at 2pm.  Tickets start at $36 and may be purchased at www.omahaplayhouse.com or by calling the Box Office at 402-553-0800.  Due to mature themes and some strong language, this show is not suitable for children.  The Omaha Community Playhouse is located at 6915 Cass St in Omaha, NE.