CASA VALENTINA is a fascinating and bizarre drama that examines a group of straight men who have a need to dress as women. They are not gay. Not flamboyant drag queens nor female impersonators. They are men, most of whom are married – some with children. Men that feel trapped and choked in their male clothing – needing to don dresses and slips and wigs and make-up to release whatever they need to be released.
Playwright Harvey Fierstein has based this documentary like drama/comedy on true life events in the Catskill Mountains resort “Chevalier d’Eon” where the world of the “self-made woman” was created in 1962.
Together with director Joe Mantello they have cast a stellar ensemble of men who are totally believable as women in this Manhattan Theatre Club production at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre that is totally well-intentioned but a bit contrived and melodramatic as it tackles a bit too many issues. Mr. Fierstein has bitten off a lot more than we can digest.
We first meet Rita a GG (Genuine Girl) Mare Winningham the relaxed and soft spoken wife of George. She literally wears the pants in the family as George is mostly in a dress as his alter ego Valentina. Their child is the resort they run that is losing money. In addition, George has been mailed an envelope containing gay porno that was meant for another person. An envelope that somehow was unintentionally opened allowing the photos to spill out resulting in George being investigated.
Bessie (Tom McGowan) quotes Oscar Wilde a lot. She is warm hearted and welcoming of first time attendee Jonathan (Gabriel Ebert) who is a nervous wreck. He is so completely unprepared for this festive weekend as Miranda that he is given a complete make-over by the other women –Gloria (Nick Westrate) Terry (John Cullum) The Judge (who arrives hunting rifle in hand – before he becomes Amy (Larry Pine) and the VIP guest Charlotte (Reed Birney) the publisher of the group magazine who has been arrested and jailed as has an agenda that is cause for a heated debate among the members.
Looking very much like a chic Bette Davis, cigarette in one hand and drink in the other she wants them all to sign an affidavit that she hopes will legalize transvestites and that will exclude all gays – as that is not what these members are. Wait…
The heated debate takes up most of Act I. They then take a rest at the opening of Act II as a trio lip syncs a recording of “Sugartime” by the McGuire Sisters as the others enjoy. Then melodrama kicks in until the rather downbeat ending.
All through the play I kept wondering about the wives. Some know, some don’t. The ones that know accept or do they? Rita does up to a point and we get some insight as to how she feels but George/Valentina seems so selfish and unfair to her.
At the very least Mr. Fierstein has gotten this secret topic out in the open creating discussion. At best he has created some very juicy roles for men to explore their inner woman.
CASA VALENTINA was inspired by the book CASA SUSANNA by Michael Hurst and Robert Swope. Whose story is it? Miranda’s? Valentina’s? Amy’s? or Charlotte’s?
Photos: Mathew Murphy
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