Among several neat things about Charlie DelMarcelle’s current run at Theatre Horizon, as the singularly eccentric German transvestite Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, is that some of us are getting to see him do it for the second time. DelMarcelle, who brings a measured, heartfelt quality to his portrayal of the real-life cross-dressing collector of paraphernalia, has lived with von Mahlsdorf’s persona on stage before, when he performed the play “I Am My Own Wife” for Amaryllis Theatre Company in Center City three years ago.
He did a fabulous job then, as he does with the same play now, produced by a different creative team on Theatre Horizon’s stage in Norristown. DelMarcelle plays about three dozen roles – some of them one-liners, but each of them different. The focus of his performance, and of the play, is von Mahlsdorf, her own sort of tour-de-force.
Von Mahlsdorf was born Lothar Berfelde, and as a boy his lesbian aunt caught him trying on girl’s clothes from her closet. She encouraged her nephew to be himself. From then on, he lived as a woman. Through luck and by dint of force – and complicity with the Communist secret police – von Mahlsdorf survived both the Holocaust and the Russian takeover of East Germany.
She was a collector of German goods from the 1890s and stored them in her home, which she also operated as a museum. Her enormous collection of phonographs, clocks, inkwells, matchboxes and many other goods (including an entire bar she saved and ran as East Berlin’s secret gay bar during Communism) would draw people to her home. Von Mahlsdorf would entreat them to share her appetite for great craftsmanship – and for saving history by collecting it.
One of those visitors was the playwright Doug Wright, who became obsessed with the very idea of von Mahlsdorf. “I Am My Own Wife” won him the Pulitzer Prize and best-play Tony Award in 2004, two years after von Mahlsdorf died. Wright wrote the play as the story of his research about her as well as a theatrical profile of her – and he’s among the characters DelMarcelle portrays.
As in the original Broadway production with Jefferson Mays, DelMarcelle plays von Mahlsdorf in a true-to-form black dress with a head wrap and orthopedic shoes, accessorized by a string of pearls. Maura Roche’s rear-stage scenic design serves as a portal into von Mahlsdforf’s house-museum. Kathryn MacMillan, the associate artistic director at Lantern Theatre Company, smartly staged this version, in which DelMarcelle invests his main character with a quiet passion and uneasy pragmatism. Whether this remarkable woman was like that or not, DelMarcelle has me convinced.
“I Am My Own Wife” runs through Nov. 24 at Theatre Horizon, 401 DeKalb St., Norristown. 610-283-2230 or www.theatrehorizon.org.