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“Casa Valentina” at the Pasadena Playhouse: Educating an audience in fascinating style

(L-R): Lawrence Pressman, Raymond McAnally, Mark Jude Sullivan, Christian Clemenson (standing), John Vickery and Robert Mammana (standing) in “Casa Valentina” at The Pasadena Playhouse [Photo: Jim Cox]

(L-R): Lawrence Pressman, Raymond McAnally, Mark Jude Sullivan, Christian Clemenson (standing), John Vickery and Robert Mammana (standing) in “Casa Valentina” at The Pasadena Playhouse [Photo: Jim Cox]

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.

Robert Mammana and Valerie Mahaffey as the complex couple running the resort

Robert Mammana and Valerie Mahaffey as the complex couple running the resort

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

Funny, Issue-Filled “Immediate Family” at the Taper

The entire  "Immediate Family" gathers for a heated game of cards [Photo: Craig Schwartz]

The entire “Immediate Family” gathers for a heated game of cards
[Photo: Craig Schwartz]

It has long been a rule of the theater that social change or tension is best examined in intimate situations. That, for all its prodigious humor, is the aim of Paul Oakley Stovall’s new play “Immediate Family,” now at the Mark Taper Forum. The play offers up an awkward reunion in a family full of secrets and unspoken tensions as a way to look at how the restructuring of the very concept of family creates its own issues in modern America.

The play covers so many issues at the same time that may be its only major flaw: one shuffles from tension to tension, meaning that some get shorter shrift than perhaps they should. Indeed, the playwright’s intent appears to be the conversations one will have afterward with others in attendance. Still, busy though it may be in content, the production itself proves so well conceived the audience leaves satisfied, as the characters prove likable, the comedy is genuine and the message surprisingly heartwarming.

The story takes place in the Hyde Park home in Chicago which Evy Bryant Jerome has inherited from her parents, a powerful African-American preacher father, Jessie, and his always-supportive wife. Indeed, their portrait hangs in the living room, surveying their progeny’s actions with implied expectation and judgement. Now Evy’s brother Tony is getting married, and the widely dispersed clan is gathering: half-sister Ronnie from her home in Europe, and Evy’s favorite brother Jesse, Jr. from New York. For Evy, this is her entire immediate family, but for Jessie, Jr. family extends beyond blood to the silly-tough neighbor girl he grew up with, Nina, and Jesse’s same-sex partner Kristian – whose arrival brings much to the surface.

The conversations this gathering inspires create the play, ranging from issues of orientation, race, class, to what makes a family a family. Evy’s determinedly cultured and almost desperately even approach plays against Nina’s brashness and unabashedly trashy humor. Kristian being a white Swede brings its own disquiets. Even the circumstances of Ronnie’s family connection create issues relating to the noble father’s potential feet of clay. The result is fast-paced, often very funny, sometimes equally wrenching, and a bit like encountering a rubber ball in a small box – bouncing around from surface to surface without ever landing anywhere for long.

The virtual choreography which keeps this from becoming a series of static conversations is beautifully designed by director Phylicia Rashad. Her sense of place and people connects these diverse characters and, with the aid of John Iacovelli’s evocative set, allows them large and small conversations and the intimacies of life in separate but unified spaces. And the performances are uniformly individual and strong.

Shanesia Davis’ upright Evy vibrates with the rigid strength of her upbringing – a sort of seething righteousness – even as it isolates her from the rest of the characters’ innate informality. Kamal Angelo Bolden’s casually happy Tony makes great counterpoint to Davis’ character, and that balance becomes essential. Bryan Terrell Clark gives Jesse a solidly non-stereotypical carriage and a certain playfulness which offsets the serious divisions this character sparks. Cynda Williams provides an egalitarian sense of civilization as Ronnie, the outsider-insider.

The two actual outsiders (at least from a certain perspective) are also the most unlike. Yet, both are catalysts for the necessary explosions which redefine the Bryants themselves. As Nina, the earthy lesbian from next door, J. Nicole Brooks gives a physicality to underlying sexual tensions with a gleeful abandon – an in-your-face counterpoint to the general gentility of the Bryant family. As Kristian, Jesse’s Swedish boyfriend, Mark Jude Sullivan starts out with an almost comical accent, but soon settles into a gentle but confident person determined to not be overlooked.

“Immediate Family” has a charming intimacy, even as it seems to cover a lot of ground rather quickly: religion, mendacity, acceptance, the importance of race, the shadow of a patriarch, all appear in sometimes rapid succession. And yet there are also moments of gentle depth, as the Bryants come gradually to terms with who they are, and how they relate to one-another. And there is laughter – almost constant, healthy laughter over people’s behaviors we cannot help but recognize.

In short, the play is very human. Performed without an intermission it will leave you wanting, truly wishing for, more. Still, what it has to say is apt, and with laughter it manages to get many points
across which might otherwise sink in more slowly. It is certainly worth a look.

What: “Immediate Family” When: through June 7, 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2:30 p.m. and 8 p.m. Satudays, and 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Sundays Where: The Mark Taper Forum at the Music Center, 135 N. Grand Ave. in downtown Los Angeles How Much: $25-$85 Info: (213) 628-2772 or http://www.centertheatregroup.org

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