Reviewing Theatre For Over 40 Years
“Casa Valentina” at the Pasadena Playhouse: Educating an audience in fascinating style
The story behind the birth of Harvey Fierstein’s fascinating, historical play “Casa Valentina” makes a good tale all by itself. A collector discovered a box of old photos at a flea market, which initially looked like a group of dressed up women lounging at an upstate New York resort called “Casa Susanna.” Only they weren’t women, but men. When Fierstein was approached to consider making a play from this evidence of a clandestine cross-dressing community, his research increased his fascination, and led to this play.
Set in the earliest 1960s, “Casa Valentina” explores the specific and at the time secret world of cross-dressing men – that is, men who feel attracted to and comfortable in women’s clothing, make-up, etc. These are often men who are happily married, have kids, and are otherwise completely connected to mainstream culture, but still have a need to take on this separate persona on occasion. Misunderstandings and gray areas were and are a part of the mix, however. In a time period when not only homosexuality (though by and large cross-dressers have not identified as gay) but even dressing inappropriately for one’s gender were illegal in many states, such issues were also dangerous.
Now receiving its west coast premiere at the Pasadena Playhouse, and gifted with an extraordinarily versatile cast, “Casa Valentina” explores much of this as we visit a fictitious 1962 Catskills retreat run by George (also known as Valentina) and his wife Rita. Along with their usual “sisterhood” of clientele, a nationally important leader of a rights movement has come to recruit an east coast chapter of her/his new nonprofit organization. This brings some unexpected baggage, heightens tensions among the group, and creates much of the drama of the piece.
There are two elements which most directly make this play work well. First and foremost is Fierstein’s ability to create rich, humorous, rounded characters who can open worlds to his audience. His is a gift not unlike Neil Simon’s: the ability to say something serious, yet inject humor at just the right moments to keep that serious focus from becoming maudlin. Second has to be the seamless ensemble of an adventurous cast. Each of the men make remarkable work of their transitions, not just in dress but in carriage and style.
Robert Mammana proves pivotal as George, whom we watch move in and out of his alter-ego, all the while carrying a nervous energy founded on George’s legal and economic problems. As the wise-cracking Albert/Bessie, Raymond McAnally radiates the joy of a man totally comfortable with embracing his female side in an atmosphere of acceptance. Mark Jude Sullivan vibrates with practicality as George/Valentina’s friend Michael/Gloria. Lawrence Pressman offers the long view as the older, specifically genteel and gently open-minded Theodore/Terry. John Vickery’s commanding judge, and wary Amy, each underscore many of the themes of the piece.
Still, perhaps the most fascinating characters have to include James Snyder’s careful neophyte, as his character Jonathan takes on the persona of Miranda for the first time. As activist, even zealot Charlotte/Isadore, Christian Clemenson makes an extremely convincing middle-aged woman – a point of which her character is very proud. As the center of the self-created storm which powers the piece, this is essential. Also fascinating, and poignant, is George’s wife Rita, played with a wry wistfulness by Valerie Mahaffey. Indeed, it is her dilemma at play’s end which brings the struggles of all involved into particular focus.
Director David Lee truly “gets” all these characters and their sense of need, emphasizing a sense of normality and humanness throughout. This in turn allows the themes of the play to air without the potential tensions which could be associated with any less genuine approach. Tom Buderwitz has outdone himself with the show’s set, which rotates from outside to porch to inside, and displays upstairs and down, as men transform and socialize, get silly and get drunk, and enjoy being themselves. Kate Bergh has created costumes which enhance the characters of individuals and emphasize the time period with seeming effortlessness.
What proves most engrossing, by the end, is this entire hidden society of straight men whose unique predilection left them as much in the closet as any other living outside what society thought of as a norm. Within all of this the concept of intolerance, and the forms it can take even within a culture hiding from the world, leaves one absolutely fascinated. For this we have Harvey Fierstein, a long-since disappeared Camp Susanna, and a box of old photos to thank.
What: Casa Valentina When: Through April 10, 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 4 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays, and 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Sundays Where: The Pasadena Playhouse 39 S. El Molino Ave. in Pasadena How Much: $25 – $77, plus premium seating at $125 Info: http://www.PasadenaPlayhouse.org or (626) 356-7529