A CurtainUp Review
By Elyse Sommer
Though Cumming was still John Cumming when she visited this unusual getaway, the guests at Casa Valentina (a fictionalize version of a real resort originally called "The Chevalier d'Eon Resort" for an infamous 18th-century cross-dresser) were hetereosexuals for whom occasionally shedding their grey flannel suits for the curly hairdos and crinolines then in fashion was all they needed and wanted.
Harvey Fierstein has certainly created plenty of memorable guys-in-gowns characters for both dramas and musicals. His double Oscar winning 1983 Torch Song Trilogy was about a Jewish drag queen's search for a love and parenthood. His books for La Cage aux Folles and Kinky Boots helped catapult those musicals into groundbreaking hits. The multi-talented Fierstein has himself slipped into gowns for on stage turns in La Cage. . . and Hairspray. But with Casa Valentina he treads new ground with a captivating and touching dramatization of a fascinating footnote of transgender history.
While this fascinating history lesson comes complete with moral issues involving uncomfortable compromises, Fierstein is first and foremeost a man who understands that people come to the theater to be entertained rather than to be subjected to sermons or lectures. And so Casa Valentina gives us an inside look at this obscure resort that's fun to see in action as well as revelatory about its place in the larger movement for the freedom to define and express one's sexual urges.
There's plenty of fun-to-watch shifting from weekday male to weekend female personas. But this is also a play with a definite arc that lends an aura of suspense and significance to the weekend during which it unfolds.
Fierstein is blessed to have a world class cast of cross dressers and director Joe Mantello to sensitively steer them through an eventful weekend at the secret safe place run by one of their own (Patrick Page lending his magnificent booming voice to both his George and Valentina) and his understanding and supportive wife (Mare Winningham). Talk of their financial status and an inadvertently opened envelope addressed to him and containing incriminating pictures are the equivalent of Chekhov's gun hinting at trouble to come and sure to explode.
Most of the weekend visitors go by their female names. The regulars include the proudly outspoken Terry (John Cullum) and Gloria (Nick Westrate); Bessie (Tom McGowan), an army veteran and the group's plump wellspring of Oscar Wilde's as well as his own self-aware witticisms (I'm so pretty I should be set to music"). There's also the first-timer (Gabriel Ebert) who arrives as the painfully self-conscious and insecure George, until a make-over by the group turns his Matilda into the group's dizzy-with-joy beauty. If I change one thing about this generally fluid production, it would be to tighten that make-over scene.
Mare Winningham's Rita, the play's only other major female character, takes us beyond a look at a heretofore unexplored slice of social history. Rita 's marriage to a man who's all hers as George but whose Valentina persona makes her feel less connected speaks volumes for the emotional complexities inherent in any marriage — but even more complicated in this situation. The brief appearance of Lisa Emery as the Judge's close-minded daughter also raises the question the effect of these men's life styles on less open-minded family members.
Scott Pask's three-level set as lit by Justin Townsend beautifully captures the woodsy look and feel of the setting. And of course Rita Ryack costumes) and Jason P. Hayes hair, wigs and makeup are crucial assets.
For a fascinating article published in the New York Times at the time that the book that inspired this play came out, check out this link: http://www.nytimes.com/2006/09/07/garden/07trann.html?pagewanted=all
Another piece to shed more light on the subject is an interview in Salon by Eric Sasson ("A bubble of dignity: Inside the Catskills cross-dressing retreats of the '60s"): http://www.salon.com/2014/04/22/%E2%80%9Ca_bubble_of_dignity%E2%80%9D_inside_the_catskills_cross_dressing_retreats_of_the_60s/