Charlotte von Mahlsdorf dressed simply, usually in a black peasant dress with a string of pearls, her only extravagance. She lived in East Berlin openly as a transgender woman, despite consequences of death or exile to a concentration camp under the Nazi regime.
Surprisingly, Mahlsdorf survived World War II, yet would face another grave threat in post-war Europe. Throughout the Cold War and the divisions between East and West, Mahlsdorf was there in petticoat and women’s shoes when the wall was constructed, and there when it came down, too.
“To think that she lived through all this is astounding,” said Vint Lavinder, a Billings actor who is portraying Mahlsdorf in “I Am My Own Wife,” the Pulitizer-Prize-winning play centered on her life.
"I Am My Own Wife" was crafted from interviews conducted by the playwright Doug Wright in the mid-1990s, not long after the Berlin Wall was torn down. The play was the first one-person show to win the Pulitzer in 2004, two years after Mahlsdorf passed away.
Wright wrote the play with the main actor portraying 35-plus characters that tell the complicated story of Mahlsdorf's life.
“It is a story of survival,” said Amanda Megyesi-McCave, director and co-founder of Backyard Theatre Company. “I feel that she wanted to live who she was, but also she knew living that way would bring attention to her.”
Lavinder is taking on an extensive role in this one-person show, and it's the most dialogue-heavy play that he’s performed. “The only play that has come close to this is 'Amadeus.' That guy talks and talks.”
The story moves back and forth in time, opening in the 1990s when Mahlsdorf is in her 60s and rewinds to her teen years, in the 1940s. Audiences are given a look into her childhood in 1930s Germany as the Nazis took hold, then onto the 1960s, during the construction of the Berlin Wall, as well as its demolition starting in 1989.
“Sometimes I’m 16, sometimes I’m 65,” Lavinder said.
Other characters include an antique dealer, SS officers, family members, and the playwright, who wrote himself into the show.
Of channeling so many people, Lavinder said, “I just listened to the characters, to hear what they’re trying to tell me.” Playing the eclectic personality of Mahlsdorf came easy. “She told me right away.”
The majority of the play’s narration is handled by Mahlsdorf, while Wright guides the story with his observations.
“He says what the audience is probably thinking,” said Megyesi-McCave, who first read the script two years ago. Then she saw the play performed last February in Bozeman. “This script felt so relevant to today and an important show to do,” Megyesi-McCave said. She purchased rights to the production while still in the theater.
In sharing this story through theater, Megyesi-McCave feels she is doing her part to bring awareness to others. “Not everyone knows these kinds of stories. Doug Wright didn’t know this story when he took on this play; a friend brought it to him…You form that connection by learning their story and sharing that story.”
"I Am My Own Wife" takes place at 7:30 p.m. on Jan. 11, 12, 18, and 19 at the Moss Mansion. A suggested donation of $10 is requested, with proceeds benefiting the Moss Mansion and future Backyard Theatre productions. Tickets may be purchased in advance at squareup.com/store/backyard-theatre or at the door, though reservations online are strongly recommended due to limited seating.