“Now in the midst of all this craziness, I have found a true character … she may well be the most singular, eccentric individual the Cold War ever birthed.”
When playwright Doug Wright hears this from his news bureau chief friend in Berlin his interest is more that piqued. The person in question is Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, a woman born as a boy and who has somehow survived both Nazi and Communist regimes.
They head to her Gründerzeit Museum in East Berlin after the fall of the Wall. For thirty-three years, she has accumulated a collection from the Gay Nineties; lamps, vases, gramophones, records, pictures, credenzas and clocks. “Some people come to see me. Ich bin Transvestit. But they soon look at the furniture”, she tells them as they tour.
She has saved records by Jewish composers by covering the labels. When families died, when the Jews were deported, when the Communists burnt people out of their homes, she “became” the furniture.
Doug is fascinated, impressed by her very existence – she doesn’t run a museum, she is one. He becomes obsessed to unravel the story of her unlikely life. Interviews dig into her family – her brutal Nazi father, the influence of a lesbian Aunt. As he explores he uncovers.
Her cultural preservation is recognised with the award of a medal, but when the files of the secret police are released flaws begin to appear. Elements are contradictory. The press has a field day. How were the museum pieces collected? Is the Tranny Granny a poster girl for the gay movement or Soviet-sponsored spy?
Doug needs to believe the story is true; like the antiques, flaws may just be part of their history. When dealing with an enigma not everything is as it appears and distinctions are not always black and white.
This multi-award winning play, based on a true story, documents its own creation, with themes of preservation, recording and survival.
Steven Mann puts in a fantastic performance, fluidly changing between more than thirty characters, often with minimal suggestion as the script requires, before transforming back to Charlotte with her fey smile and lilting German accent.
The minimal staging in combination with lighting and sound effects is effective in letting the audience conjure up what could only otherwise be done on an epic scale.
It might be possible to refine the production even further, but it’s highly professional and to see this work at the Fringe is a treat.
Show Times: 4 – 26 (not 13, 20) August 2017 at 10 pm.
Tickets: £12 (£10) (£36 family).