Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Broadway Theater Review: Casa Valentina

Men Dressing as Women Can Be a Drag, Especially When It's Your Husband Wearing the Skirt
By Lauren Yarger
A group of men from different walks of life gathers together for a weekend of relaxation and entertainment. These guys aren't there to play poker, hunt, watch sports, ponder the Civil Rights Movement, or do anything else you might expect a group of men to do in 1962.

They are at a colony in the Catskills where they can dress as women.  Casa Valentina, Harvey Fierstein's newest play about gender identity, gets a Broadway production for the Manhattan Theatre Club. It is inspired by true events that took place at the Chevalier d'Eon Resort in upstate New York where heterosexual men could escape from the confines of regular society and indulge in their desire to dress as women without fear of being arrested or scandalized. The aren't gay, transgender or drag queens, they tell us. They are "self-made" women who just feel more comfortable letting their feminine side out.

In fact, the owner of the establishment, George (Patrick Page). a.k.a. Valentina, lets anyone who is interested know they can receive assurances about his prowess with the opposite sex any time they want from his loving and  supportive wife, Rita (an excellent Mare Winningham), who helps him run the inn. Not only is this GG (genuine girl) a friend to regulars like Bessie (Tom McGowan), Terry (John Cullum), Gloria (Nick Westrate) and Amy (Larry Pine), her wig shop and lessons about how to be feminine  help the men create their new personas. She's perfectly fine with George's other identity... or so she thinks.

Joining the group is newcomer Jonathan (Gabriel Ebert), a friend of Gloria's, who has never indulged his desire to dress up in front of others, and whose new wife has no clue about his secret desire. His first attempt at making the transformation is unfortunate, but soon the "girls"pitch in to give him a makeover. Valentina performs a sort of marriage ceremony that unites Jonathan and his inner female and voila! Miranda emerges (the transformation is aided by skillful costuming by Rita Ryack.)

Also joining the group this weekend is an important visitor: Charlotte (Reed Birney), who has been advocating for -- and even going to prison to guarantee -- rights for transvestites. She publishes a magazine for those enjoying a transvestite lifestyle, for which George has penned some articles and in which photos of some of the resort's clients have appeared.

George also hopes to hit Charlotte up for a loan to keep the resort operating. Business has been down and he faces additional threats of closure following a postal service investigation into the mail delivery he received of a damaged envelope containing photos of a  homosexual and pornographic nature. They were intended for someone at the resort with secret homosexual tendencies -- a snake in their little garden of Eden. Charlotte has her own agenda, however: to make their sorority a non-profit and legitimize what they are doing.

That idea doesn't go over with the rest of the members, however, especially since non-profit status means the members will have to reveal their names and addresses.  Amy is a judge and is nearing retirement. He doesn't want to risk his benefits or scandal touching his family. Terry, the oldest in attendance, has been exploring dressing as a woman longer than the group has been in existence and doesn't see the need to give it official status. Bessie agrees, saying they already have everything they need: parties, privacy and the magazine.

Terry also bristles over being forced to sign an anti-gay statement to join the non-profit. It's necessary, Charlotte says, to distance what they do from homosexual activity, still looked on with disgust and distrust in 1962. It was the homosexual community, however, that accepted Terry and supported her without conditions or unwelcome advances before she discovered the community of transvestites at the resort, and she refuses to stand against them now. Gloria has her own reasons for questioning George's ability to denounce homosexuals.The friendly atmosphere continues to erode and finally explodes when one of the member's possible homosexual leanings are revealed.

Meanwhile, Rita, who went into her marriage with "eyes wide open" about George's transvestite activity, slowly realizes that she might not be seeing everything as clearly as she thought. Though her marriage appears perfect on the outside -- and we believe the already-married Bessie is half serious when he proposes because Rita really does appear to be a totally accepting partner for a transvestite -- not everything is perfect on the inside and her heart is troubled. A veil lifts as she realizes that Valentina has a closer relationship with her husband than she does.

"What do you want?" she desperately asks her husband?

"I want to be normal," he replies.

But is normal named George or Valentina?

The play is carefully directed by Joe Mantello. We're given glimpses into the lives of some of the men as we see them putting on their makeup and dresses. A serious tone is set and giggling at men dressing as women isn't part of the equation -- even at Page, whose large, masculine physique looks the least feminine in his costume. The casting of named stars, however, probably was a mistake as it's hard to get past thinking, "That's Patrick Page in a slip," "Oh, there's Reed Birney dressed as a woman," or "There's John Cullum wearing sandals." Birney's character seems most natural, perhaps because we don't see the transition. He enters as Charlotte and we don't know anything about the character's male counter self. He gives a controlled performance of a person dressed like a woman who takes care of business like a man.

The play itself, is flawed, however, with the second act losing direction and Fierstein relying on huge monologues that sound like essays or old radio dramas to drive the tenuous plot inspired by the book "Casa Susanna" by Michel Hurst and Andrew Martin-Weber. It doesn't become propaganda, however, and the playwright deserves a lot of credit for exploring different perspectives. Rita grows increasingly disillusioned and thanks to Winngham's sensitive, moving portrayal, we totally understand her confusion and pain.

Fierstein also includes a brief encounter with the judge's disapproving daughter, Eleanor (Lisa Emery), who is given the freedom to express her unpopular opinions about her father's choices without judgment. Kudos, Harvey.

McGowan provides much needed comic relief as his character delivers Fierstein-esque one liners and quotes Oscar-Wilde.

Casa Valentina runs through June 15 at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, 261 West 47th St., NYC.

Christians might also like to know:
-- Lord's name taken in vain
-- Homosexual activity
-- Language
-- Sexually suggestive dialogue

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Our reviews are professional reviews written without a religious bias. At the end of them, you can find a listing of language, content or theological issues that Christians might want to know about when deciding which shows to see.

** Mature indicates that the show has posted an advisory because of content. Usually this means I would recommend no one under the age of 16 attend.

Theater Critic Lauren Yarger

Theater Critic Lauren Yarger

My Bio

Lauren Yarger has written, directed and produced numerous shows and special events for both secular and Christian audiences. She co-wrote a Christian musical version of “A Christmas Carol” which played to sold-out audiences of over 3,000 in Vermont and was awarded the Vermont Bessie (theater and film awards) for “People’s Choice for Theatre.” She also has written two other dinner theaters, sketches for church services and devotions for Christian artists. Her play concept, "From Reel to Real: The Jennifer O'Neill Story" was presented as part of the League of professional Theatre Women's Julia's reading Room Series in New York in February 2018.

Yarger trained for three years in the Broadway League’s Producer Development Program, completed the Commercial Theater Institute's Producing Three-Day Intensive and other training and produced a one-woman musical about Mary Magdalene that toured nationally and closed with an off-Broadway run.

She was a Fellow at the National Critics Institute at the O'Neill Theater Center in Waterford, CT. She writes reviews of Broadway and off-Broadway theater (the only ones you can find in the US with an added Christian perspective) at http://reflectionsinthelight.blogspot.com/.

She is editor of The Connecticut Arts Connection (http://ctarts.blogspot.com), an award-winning website featuring theater and arts news for the state. She is a contributing editor for BroadwayWorld.com. She previously served as theater reviewer for the Manchester Journal-Inquirer, Connecticut theater editor for CurtainUp.com and as Connecticut and New York reviewer for American Theater Web.

She is a Co-Founder of the Connecticut Chapter of the League of Professional Theatre Women. She is a former vice preseint and voting member of The Drama Desk.

She is a freelance writer and playwright (member Dramatists Guild of America). She is a member if the The Outer Critics Circle (event manager for the annual awards ceremony), The American Theater Critics Association, The League of Professional Theatre Women and the Drama League. She served as a judge for the SDX Awards presented by the Society of Professional Journalists.

Yarger is a book reviewer for Publishers Weekly and freelances for other sites. She is a member of the National Book Critics Circle.

She also is a member of the Episcopal Actors' Guild, the NY Public Library for the Performing Arts and The O'Neill Theatre Center..

A former newspaper editor and graduate of the University of Missouri’s School of Journalism, Yarger also worked in arts management for the Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts, the Hartford Symphony Orchestra and served for nine years as the Executive Director of Masterwork Productions, Inc. She lives with her husband in West Granby, CT. They have two adult children.


All material is copyright 2008- 2018 by Lauren Yarger. Reviews and articles may not be reprinted without permission. Contact reflectionsinthelight@gmail.com


Key to Content Notes:

God's name taken in vain -- means God or Jesus is used in dialogue without speaking directly to or about them.

Language -- means some curse words are used. "Minor" usually means the words are not too strong or that it only occurs once or twice throughout the show.

Strong Language -- means some of the more heavy duty curse words are used.

Nudity -- means a man or woman's backside, a man's lower front or a woman's front are revealed.

Scantily clad -- means actors' private areas are technically covered, but I can see a lot of them.

Sexual Language -- means the dialogue contains sexually explicit language but there's no action.

Sexual Activity -- means a man and woman are performing sexual acts.

Adultery -- Means a married man or woman is involved sexually with someone besides their spouse. If this is depicted with sexual acts on stage, the list would include "sexual activity" as well.

Sex Outside of Marriage -- means a man and woman are involved sexually without being married. If this is depicted sexually on stage, the list would include "sexual activity" as well.

Homosexuality -- means this is in the show, but not physically depicted.

Homosexual activity -- means two persons of the same sex are embracing/kissing. If they do more than that, the list would include "sexual activity" as well.

Cross Dresser -- Means someone is dressing as the opposite sex. If they do more than that on stage the listing would include the corresponding "sexual activity" and/or "homosexual activity" as well.

Cross Gender -- A man is playing a female part or a woman is playing a man's part.

Suggestive Dancing -- means dancing contains sexually suggestive moves.

Derogatory (category added Fall 2012) Language or circumstances where women are referred to or treated in a negative and demeaning manner.

Other content matters such as torture, suicide or rape will be noted, with details revealed only as necessary in the review itself.

The term "throughout" added to any of the above means it happens many times throughout the show.

Reviewing Policy

I receive free seats to Broadway and Off-Broadway shows made available to all voting members of the Outer Critics Circle and The Drama Desk, the two professional critics organizations with journalists covering NY theater. Journalistically, I provide an unbiased review and am under no obligation to make positive statements. Sometimes shows do not make tickets available to reviewers. If these are shows my readers want to know about (I review all Broadway shows and pertinent Off-Broadway shows), I will purchase a ticket. If a personal friend is involved in a production, I'll let you know, but it won't influence a review. If I feel there is a conflict, I won't review their portion of the production.

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