Charlotte von Mahlsdorf is her own special creation: She is what she wills herself to be. Her clothes may be plain — a shapeless black dress, black stockings, black orthopedic shoes on her feet. But she carries herself like a queen, and it's her slight smile and shrewd gaze, not her string of pearls, that make you see she can be anyone she likes.
That von Mahlsdorf wants to be a woman, not a man as she was born, is only the first kernel of truth in I Am My Own Wife, Doug Wright's Pulitzer Prize-winning one-man drama. Charlotte is much more than she seems. And Wright's play — brought to vivid life by actor Keith Kirkwood and Mad Cow Theatre — is more than the story of an East German transvestite who survived both the Nazis and the Communists. It's the story of how believing in something, anything, can transform your life.
Von Mahlsdorf, born Lothar Berfelde in 1928, was a Berlin character: She ran a museum of 19th-century German furnishings, and in the basement she had installed an entire Weimar-era cabaret that catered to the verboten gay community of Communist East Berlin. Only after Wright (Quills, Grey Gardens) had befriended her did he learn that von Mahlsdorf quite likely was an informer for the East German secret police — and that much of what she seemed to believe herself to be might not be so.
That's fertile ground for play-writing, and I Am My Own Wife furnishes Mad Cow with a lovely playing field, one on which Kirkwood and director Alan Bruun run free. It's not so much that Kirkwood, who happens to be a Scot, has an entire encyclopedia of accents up his sleeve: Playing von Mahlsdorf, the playwright himself and a host of other characters, Kirkwood seems to move effortlessly from one voice to the next, and in one memorable speech he plays half a dozen nationalities.
More than that, it's that Kirkwood shifts so subtly from one character to the next, and that he inhabits Charlotte so fully that every expression, every gesture carries weight. His Charlotte may be a curiosity. But she has gravitas, and you believe she's capable of anything.
Bruun has directed with a light touch, aided by the impeccable work of lighting designer Erin Miner, sound designer Kurt J. Wagner and costume designer Babette Garber. And that lightness extends to the piece itself, which becomes, in a peculiar way, an autobiography of the playwright, a man who finds both kinship and strength in von Mahlsdorf's peculiar life. Wright writes the play he needs to write, just as von Mahlsdorf lives as the woman she needs to be. Neither can do anything less.
Because of scheduling conflicts, this review is based on a preview performance.
Elizabeth Maupin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 407-420-5426. Read her Attention Must Be Paid blog at OrlandoSentinel.com/ Attention and her Arts & Letters blog at OrlandoSentinel.com/ArtsandLetters.
See for yourself 'I Am My Own Wife' Where: Mad Cow Theatre, 105 S. Magnolia Ave., Orlando. When: 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays, through Aug. 9 (also, 8 p.m. Aug. 5). Cost: $22 general, $20 seniors and students. Call: 407-297-8788 Ext. 1. Online: Madcowtheatre.com.