Bryce Woodard, Brent Gettlefinger, & Jason Cooper in Casa Valentina.
Photo courtesy of Pandora Productions.
By Harvey Fierstein
Directed by Michael Drury
Review by Keith Waits
Entire contents copyright © 2015 by Keith Waits. All rights reserved.
The New York premiere of Harvey Fierstein’s Casa Valentina met with mixed reviews and, in truth, the play does dip perhaps a little too deeply into a polemical perspective, but when exploring a subject that is previously un-mined territory, and which is based on a little-known real life story, a certain amount of preaching may be in order.
The story tells of married couple George (Valentina when he is dressed as a woman) and Rita, who own and operate a resort in the Catskills in 1962 called ‘Chavalier d’Eon’, that caters to heterosexual men who have a predilection for dressing in women’s clothing. In 1962 such things were still highly illegal in most of the United States, so maintaining this haven for what they call their “sorority” is of no small importance. Two characters, Jonathan/Miranda (Eric Sharp), and Charlotte (Tony Prince) provide significant counterpoint. Jonathan is a young man anxiously making his first trip to the resort who has kept his transvestitism deeply in the closet. Charlotte is a political figure who sometimes moves in public dressed as a woman.
There are other characters, some of who arrive at the resort in female attire but several who are shown making their transformation on the second level of Wes Shofner’s impressive set design. For the most part these moments are played as background to other scenes, but their importance cannot be underestimated. Even when shared with another character, they are revelatory, highly intimate scenes lent just the right degree of sacred ritual by director Michael Drury, and the heart of what the play is trying to communicate about these characters.
The play also reveals a deeply homophobic tendency among some of these men, and a good deal of the plot turns on establishing a nonprofit group that will require the characters to reveal their identities as officers and, even more controversially, to sign an affidavit affirming that they are not homosexuals. The political conflict is heady and charged with anger, albeit a little academic in its language, but Fierstein balances these diatribes with highly personal scenes, and the cast helps matters considerably by committing fully to the passion and unsettling truths of the arguments.
The level of performance among the entire ensemble is very strong, but I was particularly taken with the work of three actors that were key in this production. Jason Cooper as Albert/Bessie is happily given some of the funniest dialogue and he knows how to shape it with a wry edge. Mr. Cooper has proven himself adept at playing broad comedy in past work but he brings a subtler quality to Bessie and makes her essential even though she is not always crucial to plot mechanics. Tony Prince’s Charlotte sports a white Barbara Bush wig, and for good reason; she is a deeply political animal with a Machiavellian grasp of power, and Mr. Prince makes her a forceful presence. Finally Carol Tyree Williams’s Rita proves essential in bringing the play down from its polemical pedestal when, in the final scenes, she provides an important revelatory moment that establishes both an outsider’s perspective, and perhaps the most insightful understanding of these characters. Eric Sharp, Brent Gettlefinger, Bryce Woodard, Rick Kautz also do fine work here, and Rick O’Daniel-Munger is also a stand-out, but I won’t spoil the plot by explaining exactly why. Suffice it to say that he has a powerful moment of quiet devastation in a late scene with Tony Prince that could be counted as a lesson in acting understatement. Teresa Willis arrives very late in the action to do good work as a family member who passes harsh judgment on the group.
Casa Valentina does at times lecture us, but it also explores profound themes of identity and resistance against mainstream society in a very particular scenario. It succeeds by balancing this agenda against characters that are given enough specificity to be universal and therefore identifiable. It also features a terrific sound design by Laura Ellis highlighted by several vintage songs. Even if its mission is to educate us, Pandora’s production also gives good value as entertainment.
November 12 – 22, 2015
At The Henry Clay Theatre
604 South Third Street
Louisville, KY 40202
For tickets go to: Pandoraproductions.org
Keith Waits is a native of Louisville who works at Louisville Visual Art during the days, including being one of the hosts of PUBLIC on ARTxFM, but spends most of his evenings indulging his taste for theatre, music and visual arts. His work has appeared in Pure Uncut Candy, TheatreLouisville, and Louisville Mojo. He is now Managing Editor for Arts-Louisville.com.