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Photograph by Dave Lepori
THE MAN IN THE GRAY FLANNEL DRESS: Robert Parsons plays an East German transvestite in 'I Am My Own Wife.'

Crossing Over

San Jose Stage's 'I Am My Own Wife' revives the life of a cross-dresser under communism

By Ben Marks

CHARLOTTE VON MAHLSDORF, the subject of I Am My Own Wife, now playing at San Jose Stage Company, was a gay transvestite who lived openly during the reign of the Stasi, East Germany's feared secret police. Mahlsdorf's story includes the murder of her abusive and alcoholic Nazi father when she was just 15 and still known by her given male name of Lothar Berfelde; the escape from prison for that crime during a Russian air raid toward the end of World War II; and a lifelong passion for antique furniture, phonographs and recordings. Oh, and for most of her adult life, she went about her business looking every bit a man in a dress, seemingly heedless of the danger it could cause her in was what perhaps the Soviet bloc's most ruthless regime.

Playwright Doug Wright brings this complicated and singular life to the stage by telling the story of how he, a gay man who grew up in the Bible Belt, got to know and befriend Mahlsdorf after the fall of the Berlin Wall. From 1993 to 1995, Wright made numerous extended trips to Germany to interview Mahlsdorf.

For most of that time, Mahlsdorf struck Wright as a heroic figure, and the play conveys his sense of wonder and admiration for this independent-minded woman. But in the course of his research, Wright got his hands on a copy of Mahlsdorf's Stasi file, which appeared to reveal that complicity with the police and betrayal of her best friend was the price Mahlsdorf was willing to pay to preserve her unique freedoms in that oppressive society.

This drama between the playwright and his subject is handled convincing and seamlessly by Robert Parsons, who carries these roles and roughly 30 others in the course of the two-act play. Among the characters he conjures up are the betrayed friend, a gay antiques dealer named Alfred who, to hear Mahlsdorf tell it, encouraged Mahlsdorf in her duplicity lest they both get tossed in prison.

And we get to know well the colorful John Marks, the childhood friend of Wright's who first got wind of Mahlsdorf's story in his capacity as a bureau chief for U.S. News and World Report (Parsons doing Marks trying to speak German with a thick Texas accent is pretty funny stuff). Parsons is supported in his multiple personalities by a deceptively simple set from John Harrison York, with terrific lighting by Michael Walsh that brings out the best in both York's design and Parsons' craftsmanship.

  I AM MY OWN WIFE, a San Jose Stage Company production, plays Wednesday–Thursday at 7:30pm, Friday–Saturday at 8pm and Sunday at 2pm through March 8 at the Stage, 490 S. First St., San Jose. Tickets are $20–$45. (408.283.7142)

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