Charlotte von Mahlsdorf— born Lothar Berfelde in 1928— was a transvestite who ran a meeting place for gays in Berlin during the Nazi regime and miraculously survived. Then “she” continued her ways when East Berlin fell under Communist rule, even though the Soviet occupiers were just as anti-gay as the Nazis had been. Charlotte even was awarded a Communist medal for helping to preserve a valuable part of Germany’s culture.
She also maintained a museum of furniture, gramophones, clocks and artifacts that she acquired when, as a teenager, she helped a second-hand dealer clear out the apartments of deported Jews. Her home museum doubled as a bar and a brothel.
The playwright Doug Wright says he was astonished when he heard about Charlotte, because he grew up as a closeted gay in America’s Bible Belt and never knew of anyone so outlandish. He made trips to Berlin to interview Charlotte and learn about her adventures, with a plan to write a play about her.
“It seems to me you’re an impossibility,” he tells her. “You shouldn’t even exist.” To a friend, he adds: “She doesn’t run a museum, she is one.”
Jekyll and Hyde
Wright felt liberated by this role model of unconventional sexuality— so much so that his play became as much about Doug and his quest as about Charlotte. When he eventually learned that she might have manufactured some of her stories, and that she may have been an informant for the Communist secret police, Wright confessed that he needed to believe the tales she told, and he put all of this soul-searching into the script.
The biggest lesson he took from Charlotte was that everyone is like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde: “In each person there is a delicate balance of male and female substances.”
Because Charlotte’s life was complicated and full of deception, the playwright simplified the presentation by casting one actor in all the roles— Wright, his best friend, his subject Charlotte, and several of Charlotte’s associates.
Simplify? No way. The rapid changes of tonal accent and body language add an extra layer of complication. And of fascination, too.
Wright’s casting choice creates ambiguity— which, after all, is the point of the story. It also creates an opportunity for an actor to display his versatility.
Jefferson Mays won several awards when he created the role in New York in 2003. In Theatre Horizon’s intimate current production, Charlie DelMarcelle is mesmerizing in a simple black blouse, skirt and kerchief. He’s no drag queen. Without benefit of makeup, he often changes character with a raised eyebrow or an unexpected smile.
David Todaro’s excellent lighting effects and Maura Roche’s detailed sets were vital.