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A transvestite survivor, by whatever means

In I Am My Own Wife, playwright Doug Wright tells the true story of Charlotte von Mahlsdorf - a German transvestite who despite her dicey sexual identity somehow survived both the Nazi regime and the Communist dictatorship that followed - with a single actor playing three dozen roles.


I Am My Own Wife

, playwright Doug Wright tells the true story of Charlotte von Mahlsdorf - a German transvestite who despite her dicey sexual identity somehow survived both the Nazi regime and the Communist dictatorship that followed - with a single actor playing three dozen roles.

At the heart of this grueling, poignant theatrical piece is the singular relationship between Wright and the by-then-celebrated Mahlsdorf (born Lothar Berfelde), whom the playwright met in 1993. (She died in 2002 at 74.)

"I became absolutely messianic about Charlotte's life story; I felt it had to be told," says Wright, whose Wife went on to win the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for drama and a Tony Award for best play. "Gay men and women are still struggling to learn their collective history, and she embodies so much of it."

Like a dazzling but flawed diamond, Mahlsdorf's tale of survival by any means necessary displays gorgeous shimmers of light, as well as dark spots - among them that she killed her sadistic father, and, far more discomfiting, the revelation later in her life that she had acted as a spy for East Germany's despised Stasi.

"In truth, my mission was as political as it was literary," says Wright. "Beyond her obvious interest to the GLBT community, I felt Charlotte could teach us all about the fluid, subjective nature of history itself; who becomes part of our shared historical record and why."

Philadelphia's Amaryllis Theatre Company, whose mission is to produce art with and about disability, launches its run of I Am My Own Wife this week. Enter managing director Josette Todaro and actor Charlie DelMarcelle.

"I thought it had great potential for an actor with or without a disability," says Todaro, who grew as close to Wright's obsessive tale of identification and survival as the playwright did to his subject matter.

"Doug fell in love with Charlotte and I fell in love with Doug," she says. "As I became increasingly immersed in the story of Charlotte's life and Doug's journey to bring this play to stage, when the time came to choose a director, I couldn't bear to let them go," which is why Wife is her own directorial debut.

To portray everyone from Charlotte to the lesbian aunt who encouraged her to be proud of her sexual identity to her Nazi and East German tormentors to the reporters who loved her story, Todaro chose DelMarcelle, whom she'd known since their days together in Villanova's master of theater arts program.

"Having watched his growth as an actor over these last 14 years," she says, "I knew he had just the right amount of angst and poetry to play such a determined and endearing character."

Angst isn't hard to find on this hot, steamy rehearsal day. DelMarcelle, in a simple black dress, single strand of pearls, and head scarf, is unshaven as he runs through last-minute stage directions. "I look like a scruffy stand-in for a Grey Gardens remake," says the 38-year-old actor, alluding to another successful Doug Wright play.

The Lebanon, Pa., native's strength as an actor is rooted in his love of physical specificity and imaginative character creation, "a smarty-pants way of saying that I usually work from the outside in, finding a character body and voice first and exploring from there."

Praised this season for his performances in Azuka Theater's Nerve and EgoPo's Waiting for Godot, DelMarcelle is proudest of having had experience with multiple characters, most recently during The Long Christmas Ride Home for Azuka, in which he played four characters.

He usually tries to keep persona shifts simple and specific: "[I] find a character body and voice that's unique and recognizable and let my imagination and that of the audience fill in the blanks." I Am My Own Wife takes this convention and applies it to what is essentially first-person storytelling.

"The character that is 'Doug Wright' shares his discoveries directly with the audience," DelMarcelle says with something like awe. "When the story reaches a moment of emotional significance or dramatic tension, the people present in those stories come to life and relive them in real time."

It's an effective, often beautiful device that allows DelMarcelle to interact with the audience and play Wright's scenes in a more representational manner. He wants audience members to forget they're watching one actor.

"I hope that they become invested in Doug's journey and are both charmed and wary of Charlotte," he says. "Why the hell would audiences want to sit through an evening, of well, me? The answer lies in getting over yourself. It's not about me. It's about the story. It's about the characters. It's about Doug's struggle to bridge the space between the hero he wanted to create and the human being that he found."

Getting over oneself and all manner of struggle also define the vision and mission of Amaryllis - to create, by example, a more inclusive cultural world in Philadelphia not only for theater artists with disabilities but also for plays that explore what it means to be different.

"Charlotte has lived all her life, like people with disabilities, feeling out of the mainstream, being stared at, having people trying to 'make her better' by changing who she is," says Todaro. "That's what Amaryllis' real mission is about: accepting everyone for who they are and being happy they're part of the puzzle that makes the world what it is."

Wright hasn't seen what Amaryllis is doing with his play; in fact, until recently he didn't even realize the company was producing it. But the playwright - who has had a successful run of shows here (the Wilma's Quills, Philadelphia Theatre Company's sumptuous Grey Gardens) - believes that it's a reasonable fit, that his hero/heroine has a valuable lesson for audiences and actors of all levels of ability.

"In the face of oppressive conformity, she managed to maintain her own idiosyncratic, particular identity," he says. "I would imagine that differently abled people, actors especially, do that every day. They don't meet our conventional expectations, so they courageously forge their own paths. Charlotte did the same."