The lights come up on Thomas Derrah as the macho George in the SpeakEasy Stage Company production of Casa Valentina. As his conversation with his wife unfolds, we see George changing out of his suit and into something more comfortable…women's clothing. Like everyone in this play, penned by Harvey Fierstein, George has a secret: He lives for the weekends when he hosts a group of men, most of whom are heterosexual, as they take a timeout from their straight family lives to dress in women's clothes at his inn in the Catskills. Fierstein's work is based on the true story of the men who gathered in 1962 at a real inn called Casa Susanna. Photographs from that gathering were uncovered some years ago at a flea market.
Although George has a loving and supportive wife, Rita (Kerry A. Dowling), it's his inner half, the glamorous Valentina, who presides over the weekend gatherings at the resort run by the couple. Part of the fascination of the performance is meeting the characters as men and then seeing them transform into the fantasy lives that were banned in public at the time period of the play.
The ritual of undressing as a man and re-dressing as a woman becomes the defining metaphor of the evening, under the sensitive direction of Scott Edmiston, who understands the complexity of the motives and wishes of each character. The two-story set is as divided as their lives, with private bedrooms upstairs where they can hang their wardrobes and preen before dressing table mirrors. The public dining room is downstairs, designed in shabby, rustic style by Janie E. Howland.
It is in intimate, ritual moments that we watch the Judge shave before he smooths on makeup to become Amy (a pragmatic Timothy Crowe who, once he dons a frumpy wig, reveals depth and longing) and the young newcomer, Jonathan (Greg Maraio), happily receiving an enthusiastic makeover by the others on his first visit. He finds liberation — at least for a few days – from a marriage of deception and lies, when he changes into Miranda and dons a pink brocade cocktail dress, high-heeled pumps, and a page-boy wig. His outfit is one of the many pitch-perfect costumes designed by Gail Astrid Buckley.
If Ladies Home Journal had featured a centerfold, Jonathan's new look could fill the double page, along with the dresses worn by the other men of this "sorority" — Albert/Bessie (an exuberant Robert Saoud), the decorated war veteran, who is married with three grown children; the foxy, elegant Michael/Gloria (Eddie Shields), the weekend guest of honor; and Isadore/Charlotte (Will McGarrahan), the leader of a national sorority and magazine for transvestites who is all business in a Chanel-like dress with matching jacket. McGarrahan hides a ruthless ambition for power under a pretend comraderie to convince the men that he/she is fighting for their agenda.
But Charlotte is the serpent in this homespun Garden of Eden, on a mission to make the men go public with their alternative identities and to launch the transvestites into mainstream America. To accomplish the change, the men must sign a statement that they are not homosexual, agreeing to uncouple cross-dressing from any sexual pursuits. This decision divides the group.
Despite the compelling challenges faced by the men, Fierstein's drama is constructed like a well-made 19th-century play à la Henrik Ibsen. The devices come thick and fast in Act 2, complete with scandal, intrigue, and angst, burdened with as much speechifying as funny quips.
The sometimes creaky mechanics of Fierstein's construction are redeemed by Edmiston's careful casting of actors, who bring layers of sympathy and complexity to their characters. Derrah's performance is especially illuminating as the conflicted George, who loves his wife but exists for the hours that he gets to spend as Valentina. Despite second-act revelations, the intertwined themes of self-deception and self-loathing are intrinsic to the decisions these men have made at a time when society played it straight. In post-World War II America, those who identified with the transvestite and homosexual communities were careful to keep their alter egos to themselves and their gender-bending comrades. In Casa Valentina Fierstein brings it all out into the open.
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