Reviewed by Judy Richter
Performing in a one-person play always poses major challenges for an actor. Robert Parsons faced additional challenges at the Feb. 15 matinee of San Jose Stage Company's production of Doug Wright's "I Am My Own Wife." Early in the first act, Parsons, playing German transvestite Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, went to play an old wax cylinder recording on an antique phonograph, but no sound emerged. Then the audience heard an announcement that technical difficulties would cause a short delay, so the lights went up and Parsons exited, but stayed in character. When the problem was fixed, he returned, ad libbed a bit to make the transition and proceeded with the show as if nothing had happened.
Still in the first act, Parsons had transitioned to another character, playwright Wright, who was ecstatic when he learned from a longtime friend, newsman John Marks, that Charlotte was willing to tell her story. When Doug jumped for joy, a service dog that had been lying quietly under her owner's seat, jumped into the floor-level playing area with him. Her owner quickly retrieved her, and the play resumed without further interruption.
These interruptions did nothing to detract from Parsons' performance and the two-act play itself. The true story is fascinating. Born Lothar Berfelde in 1928, Charlotte had an early interest in old recordings and phonographs, amassing a collection that numbered in the thousands. She eventually converted her home in East Berlin to the Gründerzeit Museum, which also included her collection of antique furniture. The more interesting aspect of her life is that she lived openly as a transvestite and her home became a haven for homosexuals through two of the world's most repressive regimes: the Nazis and the Communists. The big mystery is whether or not she cooperated with the regimes, providing incriminating information about friends and associates in order to protect herself and her home.
The question is never clearly answered, but the play provides some fascinating material. Directed by Rick Singleton, Parsons wears a calf-length black dress, black stockings, sensible black shoes, a black scarf and a string of pearls (costume by Jeremy Cole). He doesn't resort to drag-queen exaggerations to portray Charlotte. Instead, he takes a more subtle approach, giving Charlotte a quiet softness and graceful gestures. His male characters are definitely masculine in movement and gesture. John Harrison York's set design, complemented by Michael Walsh's lighting and Grant Huberty's sound, reflects the simplicity of a one-person play. When Charlotte gives Doug a tour of her home, Ray Mendonca's miniature reproductions symbolize the furniture that she points out.
"I Am My Own Wife" poses one other challenge for an actor. It requires not only a German accent but some German dialogue. For this, Parsons was aided by dialect coach Kimberly Mohne Hill, German translator Stefan Schmitz and German language coach Claudius Brieg. Therefore, kudos to Parsons for his outstanding performance and his unflappability in the face of the unforeseen.