Theater Review: CASA VALENTINA (Pride Films and Plays in Chicago)

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by Lawrence Bommer on August 27, 2019

in Theater-Chicago


Clothes make the man — even if he dresses as a woman. An entire individuality, it seems, can hang in a closet, as transvestites have proven across the centuries. Casa Valentina, a 2014 period piece by Harvey Fierstein (Torch Song Trilogy, Kinky Boots), explores a lost world of cross-dressers in the Catskills in 1962. Drawn to the cozy bungalows of their mountain retreat, these non-gay men will confront a crisis of conscience and identity that threatens their unique and tenuous escapism.

In a richly revelatory Chicago premiere by Pride Films and Plays directed by Michael D. Graham, these seven “self-made women” (plus one accommodating wife and, later, a hostile daughter) deliver a compelling group portrait. We see — from all sides — a “sorority” of supposedly straight men whose recreation is — for many fascinating reasons — to mimic the not so opposite sex. Engrossingly intimate, Fierstein’s long-ago story seems like a memory in the making, its unwilling outcasts as vulnerable as the tenants of Lanford Wilson’s Hot L Baltimore.

However successful they may be in pants in their workaday lives, on weekends these previously unremarkable guys get to go public with their secret selves and act out their female fantasies. Donning their favorite frocks, they transform into chosen female alter-egos or avatars, dancing to doo-wop hits (“Rock Bottom”) and giving new members memorable makeovers to perfect their sexual switcheroos.

Based on the real-life Casa Susanna, it’s a comfortably clandestine world managed by ambitious hotelier George (Patrick Byrnes); his feminine alias is the spa’s namesake “Valentina.” George’s patient wife Rita (Nicolia Q. Aguirre) helps to manage this getaway destination. Their clients include newbie Jonathan (Micah Kronlokken), whose “Miranda” has become in effect his second wife; bumptious Bessie (Michael Hagedorn) who spouts Oscar Wilde witticisms and mothers the others; Terry (Kingsley Day), an older and elegant devotee; The Judge (Robert Koon), a distinguished long-term member and gun-toting jurist whose “Amy” displays her own contempt of court; and younger Gloria (Josh Marshall), a scrappy survivor. For these vacationers walking “a tightrope between exaltation and terror,” Casa Valentina is both haven and heaven. It’s beyond a niche and closer to a calling.

The queen bee of this heterosexual La Cage aux Folles is haughty magazine publisher Charlotte (Danne W. Taylor), a pioneering cross-dresser with ambitions to “normalize” their enclave.

And that’s where the plot suddenly thickens. Charlotte, who is convinced that fifty years from then cross-dressing will be as common as smoking, wants to take their club public. Their sorority will be registered with the government (who already has all their names) as a non-profit enterprise. In return for their loss of privacy and anonymity, the denizens will gain security and respectability. Above all, this will end any unfortunate public associations with homosexuals/pedophiles, especially the female impersonators and drag queens who Charlotte reviles. (Alas, it’s human nature at our worst for every despised minority to need to find another to look down on.) Charlotte, who has covert connections to federal anti-pornography agents in the postal service, is not above blackmail to get his way.

Suddenly threatened with self-exposure and challenged to prove they’re not self-hating, the transvestites seem divided and conquered, dangerously disrupted by their fears and Charlotte’s militant bigotry. Declaring that “My privacy is not negotiable,” they object that Charlotte’s efforts to make them officially “harmless” will only air “dirty laundry that nobody wants to see” and just make them “a bigger target.” In this either/or showdown, there seems little room for any “variation of gray” that offers a middle ground.

By the end Fierstein opens up the story by providing a counterpoint from two outsiders. He powerfully conveys Rita’s agonies over which husband she really married — George or “Valentina.” He also depicts the life-long loathing of a daughter (BethAnn Smukowski) for her father’s freakish fetish, a legacy of rage that’s almost lethal.

Fierstein covers a lot of controversial territory in 130 minutes. Moving beyond stereotypes by sheer truth-telling, Graham’s nine actors are on top of every character quirk and plot permutation. We feel both the covert fun of seven playful aficionados in their rightful element and the protective paranoia that will ultimately end this transvestite sanctuary. Their Garden of Eden, it seems, hid one too many snakes.

photos by Cody Jolly Photography

Casa Valentina
Pride Films and Plays
Pride Arts Center, The Broadway, 4139 N. Broadway in Chicago
Thurs-Sat at 7:30; Sun at 5
ends on September 29, 2019
for tickets, call 773-857-0222 or 866-811-4111 or visit Pride Films

for more shows, visit Theatre in Chicago

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