Charlotte von Mahlsdorf is a fascinating character, to say the least. An openly transgender woman who survived Nazi Germany and, at 16, murdered her abusive Nazi father, Charlotte gained fame as the founder of the Grunderzeit Museum. It held a collection of everyday objects she compiled in the years following the war — and, in the 1970s, became a prominent meeting place for Berlin's LGBTQ community.
Scott Wichmann knows Charlotte well. She's the subject of Doug Wright's one-man play "I Am My Own Wife," and one of more than 40 characters Wichmann will portray in the 5th Wall and Richmond Triangle Players co-production opening March 8 at the Robert B. Moss Theatre.
"You can't help but be pulled in and kind of charmed by her," Wichmann says. "When she looks dead at you and smiles and you don't really know what's behind it. There is very much a sense from her that she is beckoning you forward to learn more, and then she kind of deflects you from that journey. She is always shifting and evading the truth of the matter."
This production marks a reunion for Wichmann: He and director Morrie Piersol teamed up to bring Charlotte's story to Richmond audiences once before, at Firehouse Theatre in 2006.
"It's 11 years later, so it's not the same production," Piersol says. "We get to go another level deeper. We get to find new stuff, new nuances, new meanings."
Wichmann says his process is different this time around. It's more relaxed and more focused on Charlotte than on the many other characters he plays. "I'm not making too much of the other characters," he says. "They have their own color palettes, but they are there to push the story along."
When he first approached this material 11 years ago, Wichmann says he also got caught up in research. "I went down the rabbit hole of historical context," he says. "It was a rough time in history and it's a tough place to hang out. But at a certain point you kind of have to swallow that and let her be who she's going to be through you, in all of her maddening complexity."
Both director and actor hope that this production resonates with audiences in new and different ways than it could have in 2006. "From an audience standpoint it will mean something different and it might be a bit more accessible than it was 11 years ago," Piersol says.
"There's more conversation in the public sphere now, transgender issues are more prevalent," Wichmann adds.
However, the actor says "the question mark that hangs over the play" isn't about transgender issues, really. It's about storytelling, about discerning fact from fiction. Charlotte's story, told from the perspective of playwright Doug Wright and based on his own personal conversations with her, muddles the line.
"How do we process what's true after initial impressions are made?" Wichmann asks. "It becomes about trying to understand things through Doug's eyes. She is the key to it all, if you can make her come to life and understand Doug's connection with her."
"It's a hell of a story," Piersol says. "But I think more than anything else it's an examination of her humanity and ours. That stays constant, that doesn't change." S
Richmond Triangle Players and 5th Wall Theatre's' "I Am My Own Wife" runs from March 8-17 at the Richmond Triangle Players at 1300 Altamont Ave. Tickets cost $10 -$28.