In 1928, in Berlin, Lothar Berfelde was born a man. Shortly after, in 1933, the German Weimar Republic, a socially and economically liberal party, would fall into the hands of Adolf Hitler and the Third Reich. After the rise of that fascist government, Berfelde was subject to repression and discrimination as he started to identify himself as a woman.
As the Third Reich fell in 1945, people began fleeing to West Germany for sanctuary, and as they fled, Berfelde collected many of their possessions, that would have otherwise been lost or destroyed.
Berfelde soon started to dress more feminine, and eventually the transvestite changed his name to Charlotte von Mahlsdorf. Her collection of everyday items later entered history as a part of the Frderverein Gutshaus Mahlsdorf museum (formerly Mahlsdorf's home in Berlin).
I Am My Own Wife, a Pulitzer Prize-winning play that premiered off-Broadway in 2003, explores the events of Mahlsdorf's eccentric life. Doug Wright, the playwright, grew up a homosexual in the Texas' Bible Belt and identified with the sexual oppression that Mahlsdorf experienced. Before Mahlsdorf's death in 2002, at the age of 74, Wright met with Mahlsdorf, in Germany, where she shared her life story.
Wright wrote his play for a single actor to play 36 different roles.
"The voice is a big part of [making it work]," says Erik Sandvold, the Denver Post Ovation award-winning actor starring in Theatreworks' upcoming production. "And your body is another."
For the 42-year-old Sandvold, the task is familiar. Considering his job at Talking Book Publishers Inc., a national library service for the blind and physically handicapped, he is used to altering his voice. For IAMOW, Sandvold ranges from Mahlsdorf, his most challenging character, he says, to a "spazzy" German guard and an angry British journalist. The characters' various nationalities and the different dialects Sandvold employs help distinguish between characters.
According to first-time Theatreworks director Christy Montour-Larson, of Denver's Curious Theatre Company, effectively playing the multiple roles is in "how the people move, stand and how they walk."
Sandvold is also no stranger to the themes of sexual adversity, having once performed in the play Take Me Out, about a baseball player that "comes out" and confronts homophobia. Montour-Larson and Sandvold both find the themes of sexual equality and prejudice tantamount to the play. Particularly when one considers that the heroine evaded two oppressive regimes: The Third Reich during World War II and the German Democratic Republic, the communist rulers during the Cold War.
"The story is fascinating, and Malhsdorf is a truly amazing woman," says Montour-Larson, noting that she did what was necessary to survive.
And not everything that was necessary was pretty.
"She was wily, and may have given information to the Stasi, the German secret police," says Montour-Larson, adding that Malhsdorf claimed to have killed her father in her biography, though no records prove it.