Alan Paris dressed as a woman. Not a drag queen, but a soft-spoken, seemingly unassuming lady in black: blouse, skirt, head scarf, knee length socks, shoes and a pearl necklace, the only hint of vanity in the outfit. Ladies and gentleman, this is Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, a German transvestite whose gentle demeanor belied a resolve of steel that defied the Nazis and compromised (?) with the Stasis, in an admirable pursuit of her individuality.
Born Lothar Berfelde, to parents Max Berfelde and Gretchen Gaupp, Charlotte realised from an early age that she was more of a girl than a boy. She liked girls’ clothes, trinkets and hobbies, for which she had the support of her lesbian aunt but not of her Nazi father. He pointed a gun at her and gave her an ultimatum: either to live with her estranged mother or with him. An hour in which to choose, after which Charlotte struck and killed him. She spent several weeks in a psychiatric institution and then served time in a juvenile delinquent detention centre. This was just the beginning: she went on to become a cult figure whose life was foregrounded by her determination to live openly as a homosexual and a transvestite during times of persecution.
Charlotte, and thirty-five other characters, populate Doug Wright‘s award-winning script. Thirty-six characters portrayed by one actor. This could have easily been an hour and a half of listening to one man doing voices, a tedious monologue about someone we never met, someone we don’t really care about, except for maybe in a vague history-as-empathy kind of way. To connect with such a figure one must be exposed to an honest, humane and respectful portrayal that embraces his/her soul whilst keeping the feet firmly planted on the ground. Fortunately, this is exactly what the audience in Vault no. 2 at the Valletta Waterfront was treated to.
The first act was amazing, the second perfect. Mr Paris and director Nanette Brimmer did justice to Mr Wright’s stroke of genius, to simulate Charlotte’s odyssey by having one actor in one costume performing all. Characters, voices and foibles all converged back to Charlotte, thus weaving a complex tapestry of human nuances and emotions that touched everyone. No wonder some members of the audience were in tears by the end of it. This is a piece that, even if done badly, it would still be a challenge for any actor. Seeing the excellent Mr Paris appear and disappear inside a plethora of characters, was simply mind-blowing.
Script, direction and performance humbled us all. It’s on tonight and tomorrow, go see it.