Above: Eddie Shields as Gloria, Thomas Derrah as Valentina and Robert Saoud as Bessie access their inner McGuire Sisters./ALL PHOTOS GLENN PERRY
By Shelley A. Sackett
With the gloom of daylight savings time and shorter, darker days looming around the bend, we should say a double “Hosanna” for SpeakEasy Stage Company’s six-week run of “Casa Valentina”, Harvey Fierstein’s Tony-nominated play that is about much more than cross-dressing and visual gags.
“Casa Valentina” is a flawless production, from its across-the-board inspired acting and directing, to its funny and thought-provoking script. Before the house is even dark, the ukulele music and whimsical setting clue us that we are in for an enjoyable ride.
The play was inspired by a mysterious true subculture of heterosexual transvestite men who sought sanctuary in the Catskills during the 1960’s at the real-life hidden refuge, “Casa Susanna”. There, they could literally let their hair down, wearing wigs, heels, makeup and jewelry. A treasure trove of photographs discovered by a furniture dealer in a Manhattan flea market and published in a 2005 book showed the secretive world of men lounging around, playing cards and socializing — all while dressed as women.
A group of producers approached Fierstein, one of America’s first openly gay major celebrities, about writing a play based on the retreat. The author and Tony-award winning actor and playwright of “Kinky Boots”, “La Cage aux Folles” and “Torch Song Trilogy” agreed.
Janie Howland’s pleasing, rambling set is the 1960s Chevalier d’Eon, a homey Catskills resort of bungalows named after a French transvestite spy. The Chevalier caters to a group of “regulars”, married city-men with straight lives and straight jobs, who convene in the tranquility of the retreat to dress and behave like women. These gatherings are vacations in more ways than one; “Being a boy is my day job,” laments one. The masculine pronoun is banished from conversation, the booze flows freely and the Oscar Wilde quotes are darts that never miss the bull’s eye.
The wife and husband proprietors, Rita and George (also known as Valentina), are equally devoted to providing a safe place where transvestites have the freedom to explore their feminine sides and enjoy the camaraderie and fun of their soul sisters. Rita, played by Kerry A. Dowling with warmth, substance and a lot of heart, is a wig stylist who met George when he brought his sad, straggly wig into her shop for repair. She loves the “girls” and is almost saintly in her support for her husband. [Thomas Derrah, as Valentina/George, is superb].
Jonathan, a masculine, shy and bookish thirty-something, is a first time guest at the Chevalier; in fact, it is his first time ever dressing as a woman in public. Rita takes him under her maternal wing and his transformation from nervous, cautious Jonathan to ebullient and prom-ready Miranda is heartwarming. It is also a hoot, with wigs, falsies and industrial strength foundations for face and fanny.
Each guest is unique and yet similar. Bessie, played with sass and verve by Robert Saoud, only appears in drag. She is the Oscar Wilde-spewing quick-witted Ethel Merman wannabe. As Albert, he is a decorated war veteran who has three kids and a wife able to ignore him.
Gloria, played by the breathtakingly beautiful Eddie Shields, is the most sexually charged and self-confident of the bunch, slinking around and miraculously not breaking an ankle in those stilettos. Terry, a frumpy maiden aunt type, couldn’t be more opposite.
But it is Timothy Crowe as Amy, the alter ego of The Judge, a distinguished and politically powerful man, who personifies the inner conflict suffered by those who must live secret lives. Crowe masterfully lets the Judge’s underlying sadness and fear poke its head above the surface of Amy’s wit and conviviality.
Most of the girls have known each other for decades, and their affectionate and easy chatter and jibes are fun and funny. The lip sync to the McGuire Sisters in a makeshift cabaret reminiscent of talent night at summer camp is worth the price of admission.
All, however, is not worry-free in Paradise.
Valentina has been summoned to the local postal inspector to answer for some suspicious mail, which could have dire consequences for all of the girls, but especially for George. The Chevalier is facing equally life-threatening financial problems. Only Rita is aware of these troubles.
Enter into this olio of eccentrics the Californian Charlotte, a Chanel-clad button-down, buttoned-up disciplinarian reminiscent of George C. Scott as Patton. Charlotte publishes a magazine and oversees an organization devoted to the rights of cross-dressers, as long as they’re the “right sort” of cross-dressers; that is, as long as they are not homosexuals. Valentina has naively pinned her hope on securing a loan form Charlotte, but the price she demands proves too steep and threatens to tear the Chevalier apart in a far nastier, bloodier battle than would ever take place in bankruptcy court.
Charlotte’s silver lining is that she is the spark that spurs serious discussion about serious issues. In this age of gender diversity, “Transparent” and the newest reality show, “Caitlyn Jenner”, how one identifies ones self matters both more and less. The lines between gender and identity, sexuality and gender identification, and what is “acceptable” and what is not have never been more blurred. With the explosion in labels comes an explosion in opportunities to marginalize and be marginalized. Perhaps the most powerful message “Casa Valentina” offers is that the discriminated against can themselves be the heartless discriminators.
“Casa Valentina” is a romp and a good time, but it much more than that. It shines an unblinking spotlight on the underbelly in all of us, and dares us to ask ourselves a simple question: What is “normal”?
Recommend is too tame a word for “Casa Valentina”. If you miss its run, you will be sorry.
“Casa Valentina” will run until November 28, at the Boston Center for the Arts, 527Tremont Street in Boston’s South End.
For tickets or more information, call 617-933-8600 or visit SpeakEasyStage.com.