Sunday, October 16, 2016

"Casa Valentina"

Casa Valentina
Harvey Fierstein

The Cast of "Ladies" of "Casa Valentina"
The tall, curly-headed twenty-something with boyish face is greeted at the door of the bungalow inn by hostess Rita, “Grab a dish towel, and make your dreams come true.”  Later her husband George adds, “Welcome to the best weekend of your life.”  With tentative eagerness instilled in his eyes, Jonathan steps into a 1962 magical haven in the heart of the Catskills where men escape from wives and children, classrooms and students, courtrooms and lawyers to find “the outward expression of the inner female” within them.  Based on a book by Michel Hurst and Robert Swope (Casa Susanna), Casa Valentina is Harvey Fierstein’s 2014, Tony-nominated play about mostly heterosexual men who gathered on weekends to dress and act in every way possible as normal, everyday women.  With an age-and-size diverse cast that transform from ordinary men into ordinary women right before our eyes, New Conservatory Theatre Center presents the regional premiere of this fascinating piece of American history.

Much of the delight of witnessing the fourteen hours represented in Casa Valentina is to watch a slice-of-life representation with only minimal sense of plot of these men who seek not just to let their hair down but to put their hair, face, lace, skirt and heels on in order to just relax with others like them.  This is not a sex-filled weekend but a weekend filled with cocktails, quips and gossip, stories about families back home, and a little cabaret of their own with no headliner but the record player.  As a judge near retirement says when he appears as the dignified, steady-voiced Amy (Tom Reilly), “At last I can breathe again ... Hello, Amy ... I’ve missed you.”

Paul Rodrigues as George/Valentina
The personality shifts are as dramatic as the outward appearances.  Muscular, darkly handsome George (Paul Rodrigues) is by all appearances a man’s man and woman’s dream.  As co-proprietor of the inn, he hustles about trying to help his wife Rita (Jennifer McGeorge) ready the inn for the weekend.  Already in his slip and beginning to put on make-up, he grabs his wife and erotically draws her into him.  But then he turns to the mirror requesting the wig she has readied for him.  “Right now, I need Valentina,” he whispers; and the transformation into a beautiful, shapely woman with hip sways, hand flips, and head tosses is soon complete.  Gone is George, that half to be forgotten until the new week’s dawn.

The mixture of women who appear from their bedrooms for the first evening’s drinks and meal is not unlike what one might remember from a mother’s weekly bridge party in small town America.  Besides sexy Valentina and matronly Amy, there is the dowdy, elderly Terry (aka Theodore, played by Michael Moerman) who sputters in her gravely voice but still shows sparks of devilishness when given a chance to cut a gentle rug in barefoot on the dance floor with one of the younger “ladies.”   Gloria, who arrived as Michael (and played by Tim Huls), brings a Spanish flair and sassiness to her hidden persona and a dimpled smile that works well for both halves. 

Max Hersey, Ready for Make-Over into Miranda
When Jonathan finally appears as Miranda, Max Hersey excels in creating a caterpillar emerging slowly as a wrinkled butterfly trying to stand on its wobbly, new legs.  With a wig that looks more like a mop and in a dress that hangs loosely with no shape or style to mention, he flops across the floor in his purple, glistening heels.  But all the other ‘girls’ rush to hold him up and to make him over, resulting in a butterfly with new breasts, new hips, new curls, and totally new confidence as a Miranda who has finally come home.

Jeffrey Hoffman as "Bessie"
In any group of friends, there is often that one standout who is the biggest tease, wit, and grabber of the group’s attention whenever the slightest opportunity avails herself.  Such is the oh-so-Southern Bessie, “short for Alberta and worlds away from Albert” -- the last name being the other world husband and father left far behind when Bessie comes to the Catskills.  Jeffrey Hoffman is the knockout star of the show, not only because of the totally funny and big-hearted persona he creates for Bessie, but also because Harvey Fierstein has provided him with the best lines time and again.  (One could totally imagine Harvey himself playing Bessie.)  Pleasingly plump Bessie announces her entrance to dinner with, “I’m so pretty, I should be set to music.”  When told by sweet Miranda/Jonathan how nice she is, Bessie retorts, “I’m not pretty, young, or rich ... Kind is all I got.”  In the midst of a conversation about sending something back in the mail, she quips, “I once had a male form ... I filled it out and sent it back.”  And voicing what probably everyone in the room (minus Rita, at least) feels deep down, Bessie sighs, “I am my own perfect spouse.”

Paul Rodrigues  & Jennifer McGeorge
Greeting each with hugs, aiding with hair fixes, and joining in as a fellow girlfriend is Rita, George’s wife.  At one point after helping in Jonathan’s make-over, she pleads, “Someone fetch me a drink ... I’m exhausted  ... I’ve made dinner and a woman.”  Jennifer McGeorge gives an award-worthy performance as she walks the tight-wire between being totally supportive of her husband’s cross-dressing and her own increasing doubts of “you’d be better off without me maybe.” 

Into this weekend of girlfriend time-out from the world of living as males enters the play’s drama.  The ingredients for disruption include an inn about to go bankrupt, a brown envelope of XXX-rated photos mailed to George and discovered by postal officials, and a nationally known transvestite who is willing to do whatever it takes to force this shadow group in the Catskills to step into the spotlight and join her newly certified, national nonprofit sorority of male cross-dressers.  Matt Weimer as Charlotte brings a body build often politely noted as “big boned” and a look where every hair is in sprayed stiffly in place.  She also brings a stuffy sophistication that both wants to be one of the girls but also is clear that she is probably better and smarter than the others.  “Not to toot me own horn, there is a Christ-like element to my journey,” she declares as she describes her movement to out transvestites as something not to be shunned but admired.  But in her world, transvestites in this so-called sorority must be heterosexuals only, not homosexuals who are “the back-ally vermin of society.”

Becca Wolff directs this group of cross-dressers with humor and heart, fully utilizing the compact nooks and crannies, doorways and corners of Kua-Hao Lo’s bungalow stage design.  Keri Fitch has stitched together an incredible array of personality-defining male and female outfits that speak to the era of Jackie Kennedy and to what one might have found at that time at the local Goodwill Center.  David Carver-Ford’s wigs and Ting Na Wang’s properties fill in all the right ways to make these girls come to full life.  And the background music designed by James Ard deserves its own soundtrack CD as a compilation of an entire array of the early 1960s easy listening, nightclub, and bachelor pad music.

Where the evening falters has little-to-nothing to do with NCTC’s cast or production.  Harvey Fierstein’s mostly brilliant script at times becomes too much like a lecture to the point of even being a bit preachy.  At those points when one character goes on and on making a case for or against tolerance of cross-dressing, of allowing/not allowing homosexuals into their company, or of offering a commentary of the movement that is in the making right before our eyes, the action slows, the energy decreases, and audience attention seems to wane.

That being said, there is so much to like in New Conservatory Theatre Center’s engrossing, entertaining, and enlightening production of Casa Valentina.  This is history that deserves to be told; and to be told well, it needs to be seen in the manner NCTC does so well. 

Rating: 4 E

Casa Valentina continues through November 6, 2017 on the Decker stage of New Conservatory Theatre Center, 25 Van Ness Avenue at Market Street, San Francisco.  Tickets are available online at or by calling the box office at 415-861-8972.

Photo by Lois Tema

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