“Ich bin ein transvestit,” explains Charlotte von Mahlsdorf near the beginning of Doug Wright’s multi award-winning Broadway play performed by the multi award-winning Jefferson Mays.
Imagine a transvestite growing up in Weimar Germany and visions of a drag version of Marlene Deitrich in high heels slinking around sleazy cabaret bars probably spring to mind. But Charlotte, the female identity adopted in the 1930s by young Lothar Berfelde, cultivated the image of a rather staid country lass, wearing drab peasant skirts, stout walking shoes and a pearl necklace – apparently after being influenced by a childhood encounter with a lesbian auntie in jodhpurs.
In the same way the English learned to love Quentin Crisp, in frauline Charlotte, the Germans created a celebrity tranny granny of their own – an eccentric antiques collector who went on chat shows and turned into a national treasure before her death in 2002 aged 74, while the dusty von Mahlsdorf furniture museum in East Berlin was where Charlotte became the resident exhibit.
In Wright’s play, based on transcribed interviews conducted in the early 1990s, it’s clear that Charlotte must have had a much harder time than Quentin. As an ambisexual teenager, Lothar Berfelde bludgeoned his brutal father to death, then spent the war in a prison camp, faced a homophobic SS firing squad, dodged the Gestapo and, once the Berlin Wall had been erected, reinvented Charlotte as a cross between a respectable fraulein, a black marketeer and a Stasi secret police informer.
As told in a remarkable form of Anglo-German speech by Mays, who in Moises Kaufman’s immaculately staged production, switches invisibly between Charlotte, the gay American interviewer and a variety of other characters, this amazing story of cross-dressing, antique dealing and personal treachery is rich with humorous understanding, but both devastating and heart-lifting at the same time.
If the amazing Mays also leaves you with a strong suspicion that Charlotte enriched, dolled up or deliberately falsified the remnants of her past, then you kind of forgive the old girl because she was so obviously a survivor of two of the most repressive political regimes ever invented.
Who was the real Charlotte von Mahlsdorf? A harmless homosexless eccentric who just fell in love with museums, furniture and the odd bloke? A dangerous gender-bent fraud in a pleated skirt? There are no glib answers in this gripping account of one man’s search for identity. Unique and unmissable.