I got out of the house once again Saturday night and headed back down to the Bartell Theatre, where StageQ — the LGBT-themed theater group known for producing “Queer Shorts” shows like this and this — is offering its latest production, Casa Valentina. (Note the present tense there; the show is running through next weekend.) For those unfamiliar with the play (and I admit I was among them until I saw it in person), Casa Valentina is a Tony Award-nominated show about a gathering of crossdressing men in the early 1960s. The play was written by Harvey Fierstein — yes, the Harvey Fierstein, whose Kinky Boots just had a Madison run earlier this month (damn, I missed it!) — and premiered on Broadway in April 2014.
I will venture into Casa Valentina‘s details later, but I must note that this post will not be a traditional “yay or nay” review. No, no, don’t take that the wrong way, for I do strongly recommend, if you’re in the Madison area, to go see one of its remaining shows. (There is a performance listing here, and a neutral party review from Isthmus here. There’s also a backstage talk with WISC-TV here.) Seriously, you should go see it, for the performances are top notch, the Evjue Stage’s intimate layout draws the audience in, and Fierstein’s writing is gut-punching funny yet powerful and thought provoking.
A reason I must refrain from a fully neutral review of the play here is… well, I can’t technically consider myself a fully neutral party. No, I’m not in the play, of course, as I’ll never be a master thespian. But I am a proud volunteer, and earlier on Saturday, I became a first-time StageQ volunteer, helping (in male mode, natch) some of the StageQ folks clear some of their storage space. Uh uh, don’t yawn, because, for one, unloading and sorting storage items (and the sweat associated with it) is a good workout that can help improve one’s figure and curves. Much more, though, clearing out a theater company’s storage space takes one who’s never previously been in the theater world on a magical journey. Worn out or broken down set pieces can conjure up, for the StageQ regulars, memories of old shows. A wardrobe piece can bring out an old character or even a new one right on the spot. And an old prop, chair, stairs, or wooden box, so long as it was still in good condition and still useful (the rest was given away or dumped), can create possibilities for a future show. Of note, the StageQ regulars, or at least the ones I met on Saturday, are pretty good folks, including a couple who are part of Casa Valentina‘s cast and production team, had just performed in the show the previous night and would again that night. It’s true, people in the theater world can be real Jacks (and Jills) of all trades.
But enough about me. Let’s get back to Casa Valentina itself and another reason this won’t technically be a full-on review: More than the fine script and performances — and they definitely are fine (seriously, Madison, go see the show!) — it was the play’s themes that still resonate with me the day after. I will start with the source material: Harvey Fierstein was inspired to write Casa Valentina by images discovered over a decade ago, first published in the 2005 book Casa Susanna, and displayed in some gallery exhibits (some of them were shown earlier this year as part of an Art Gallery of Ontario show). The photos, some of which appear in amazingly good condition, document a New Jersey home that really was billed as Casa Susanna, which was originally named in honor of Chevalier d’Eon (and there’s a reference to that French figure early on in Casa Valentina). It was a place where men could dress up and express their feminine side in a welcoming atmosphere in the middle 20th century (I’ll get to that setting’s importance in the play later). Coming across a line in the book’s introduction, I’m struck by what Robert Swope, an antiques dealer who discovered and acquired the Casa Susanna photos, said about the pics. He mentions that the pics are “‘witness’ pictures” that validate “a part-time life that was perhaps more real [for the guests] than their lives away from Casa Susanna.” A pretty powerful line, isn’t it?
Okay, to the play itself, and I won’t consciously give any major spoilers here: Just as with its source material, Casa Valentina is set in mid-20th century, 1962 to be exact (the StageQ production reinforces this with big band or up-tempo style background music from almost right out of that time). The location is a bungalow resort in New York’s Catskill Mountains run by the husband-and-wife team of George and Rita. George has a male-to-female crossdressing side, Valentina, that he privately displays and that Rita is fully supportive of. To that end, they open their property to heterosexual men who want a weekend to step out of the proverbial closet and dress and act all ladylike. It’s where the men can dine, dance, drink, smoke (*ACK!* *GAG!* *cough!* well… it was the 60s), do housework, give makeovers, vamp for the camera, play a few hands of bridge, and enjoy a comfortable sorority of kindred spirits, judgemental eyes of the outside world be dammed.
And it was that outside world that could create problems and insecurities. The play makes note several times that being a transvestite was equated during that time period to being a homosexual. Such actions, or even images of them, were considered in wide circles to be lewd, immoral, and even illegal. It’s the confronting of that conservative view that leads to a notable moment in Casa Valentina: One of the guests, Charlotte, heads a crossdressing advocacy group that has just gained recognition as a nonprofit organization, and she invites Valentina and the guests to join an “East Coast chapter” — so long as they openly profess their male names, their addresses, and their heterosexuality when doing so.
It’s that announcement by Charlotte, the resulting rifts that are generated within this clearly close-knit group, and some deep secrets that surface in the second act that really propels the drama in Casa Valentina. It also raises several themes that lingered in my mind after leaving the Bartell and even this morning back at home:
The equating of transvestism with homosexuality. Combating this far-too-broad equation lingering in the general public’s mind is the reason Charlotte wants those in her organization to “go public,” as it were: As long as people still equated it with homosexuality, laws against transvestism will still exist. Though you can sense the apprehension from her fellow guests, Charlotte has a point: If a man wants to display a feminine side, that doesn’t always mean he automatically wants to expand his sexual preference; it also doesn’t always mean that he automatically desires to become a full-time woman or even a drag queen. Those who flatly claim otherwise — then and now — risk being seen as practicing pure conjecture. That’s not to say there are those who still struggle with this unproven equation. Indeed, in real life, David Lee (who directed a West Coast production of Casa Valentina earlier this year) and even Harvey Fierstein himself have admitted they had never previously thought about the world of “a heterosexual crossdresser.” And a character in the play also struggles with the equation in a key moment.
The loss of anonymity. As a generally closeted crossdresser who is not out to personal friends or family or even to the general public, I always live in fear of the repercussions that could occur if they knew about Allison. This is true in a hypothetical situation (like, say, this one) where I would need to give out my real male name and risk having it on the public record. I’m reminded of that concern by a key moment in Casa Valentina‘s second act when… well, I won’t spoil what happens, but one of Rita and Valentina’s guests lands in a situation where his feminine side may be exposed outside the private group. It’s not only a moment that risks putting his good name to shame, it also has a serious ripple effect on the other characters.
The longing for refuge and privacy. I easily related to one of Casa Valentina‘s characters, a first-time guest named Miranda. As Jonathon, he arrives in Scene 1 all nervous and insecure yet wanting to be accepted as Miranda in a welcoming environment, something he cannot get at home from his wife. Sure enough, Miranda is treated as one of the girls, and seeing her gain that confidence is a treat. However…
The loss of an accepting atmosphere. …the emotional earthquake that results from Charlotte’s publicity request as well as the guest’s sudden situation I mentioned two paragraphs up (one that she brings upon herself, to be honest), results in Miranda — and Jonathon — becoming scared… and wanting to venture back into his home closet. I’ve known that feeling of longing for a welcoming refuge. As Allison, I visited a place such as Casa Susanna a couple of times in the past, but the sense of real life and real problems intruding from the outside would still wriggle into the warm, accepting atmosphere, not to mention real emotion and real opinions within those comfortable confines. Seeing Miranda express her fear almost made me want to leap onto that stage and give her a big hug of sympathy.
The blurring of gender roles. This theme wasn’t as big a part of Casa Valentina as the others, but it’s still important to mention here. This was the early 1960s, a time when male and female roles had clearly defined delineations: Men went out into the work world, women mainly stayed home. Men brought home the bacon, women fried it up in the pan. Men did the yard work, women did the household chores. Men didn’t put on makeup, wigs, and dresses, whereas women did. These lines blurred in Casa Valentina‘s setting. As Valentina’s wife, Rita, notes very early on, their guests are actually willing to help out with the cleaning and cooking and whatever else; they enjoy doing so, in fact. The notion of men (in or out of women’s clothes) doing the housework is quite common today, and it’s a quantum leap better than the long-antiquated beliefs that Rita and Valentina’s guests, and the tradition-bound community that surrounded them, were raised on.
The levels of acceptance. I use the plural form of “level” in that sentence as the displays of acceptance and treatment of men in women’s clothing run the extremes in Casa Valentina (and there are some broad **SPOILER ALERTS** in the following bullet points):
- For one, there’s acceptance within the group, where the guests refer to each other by feminine names and pronouns. One Act 2 moment has Charlotte, in her self-appointed mother hen role, stepping in and advising Rita, who was in the middle of a heated discussion with her husband, to refer to George as “Valentina” since, well, George was dressed up as Valentina (Rita not-so-kindly told Charlotte to back off). Clearly, Charlotte is very accepting of this sorority and encourages others to be just as accepting, even during inopportune moments such as this.
- Then there’s acceptance outside the group, or lack thereof. Since this was the 1960s, general acceptance of crossdressing was hard to come by, no matter how hard someone like Charlotte advocated for it. This is clear when a town resident — a cis-gender woman related to one of the guests who knows and is disdainful of her relative’s crossdressing — clearly makes her presence known in Act 2, excoriating, in devastating fashion, Rita and George for their immoral acceptance of transvestism. She does not mince words in her monologue, which makes it the scariest moment of the whole play, in my opinion.
- Lastly, there is the one-on-one type of acceptance. Sure, Rita and George’s guests accept each other, but between Rita and George, however… Well, lets say they’ve strained to keep their resort open and its atmosphere welcoming, and the sudden drama that occurs begins to show fissures in their relationship. It leads Rita to wonder about what George feels when he becomes Valentina, which produces a bittersweet line involving the play’s title (I won’t tell you when it occurs, but pay attention to this moment when you go see the show; you won’t forget it).
As the above points suggest, Casa Valentina is not a laugh-a-minute. It is, however, quite a wonderful play, with moments that are truly funny (don’t discount the comedy here) as well as moving. Its characters are not two-dimensional stock caricatures but ones with true hearts, open beliefs, and good intentions, not to mention less-than-perfect execution of those beliefs and intentions.
A few things that struck me right after seeing Casa Valentina and while writing this post: First, Harvey Fierstein really did his homework when researching Casa Susanna and other source material as background for the play: The setting (both time and place), character backgrounds, and other details that mirror real life, as evidenced by this article I came across about the person who established Casa Susanna back in the 60s, Susanna Valenti. Even if you don’t get the chance to see the play (though you still should), really read that article, for it sums up Ms. Valenti’s life and pro-trans stances very well.
Secondly, since Casa Valentina is set in the early 1960s, it’s likely that most if not all of its characters would have passed on by now. I wonder if, hypothetically speaking, they were able to look at real life here in 2016, and how the LGBT community as a whole, and the crossdressing community in particular, has become a wider community, one where acceptance and connections can be built with the click of a computer’s mouse. Would they share joy over this shift in attitudes? Would this change feel so jarring to them? Would they provide their own support, perhaps even a little “back when I was your age” type of story? Conversely, though, would the characters still show any fear in 2016? Would they show concern and disdain over the ghastly attitude some conservative powers-that-be have toward LGBTs in general and trans people in particular? Would they take a stand against anti-trans laws, either proposed or enacted, that have popped up in states like North Carolina?
And would Rita and Valentina, in particular, still feel a need for a getaway for crossdressers to present their feminine side in safe seclusion? As George (not yet in Valentina’s clothing, if I recall) mentions in passing in Casa Valentina, a relatively newfangled thing called the air conditioner threatened the lure of a cool, comfortable weekend stay in the Catskills for people of all persuasions. I wonder if today they would feel that a now-common (and, in the early 60s, unheard of) thing called the internet would threaten the need for an open yet private place for crossdressers to gather in person.
Something though, tells me that Rita and Valentina would still feel that need. As long there are those who will sit in unfounded judgement upon “lewd” and “immoral” crossdressers and the LGBT community as a whole, and as long as those in the community still long for interpersonal support, there will still be a need for places like a LGBT community center, a need for events such as a LGBT pride parade… and a need for a getaway to some secluded place where men can freely and without prejudice explore their private feminine side.