Speakeasy's "Casa Valentina": Crass Dressing?

Will McGarrahan, Sean McGuirk, Robert Saoud, Thomas Derrah & Eddie Shields
 in "Casa Valentina"
(photo: Glenn Perry)

What theater does best is transport us to places we can only imagine, expose us to people we find unfamiliar and fascinating at the same time, and provoke us to new ways of thinking. As the tagline for “Casa Valentina” puts it, this play is about “gender identity, self-acceptance and the struggle to find the right pumps”, thus establishing from the very beginning that this will be tragicomedy of a world alien indeed to most of us. It's SpeakEasy Stage Company's current production, a New England premiere, of Harvey Fierstein's Tony-nominated 2014 play. Based on material from the non-fiction book “Casa Susanna” by Michael Hurst and Robert Swope, it's the story of a group of men, self-described as heterosexual, who found a safe haven in a bungalow colony in the Catskills back in the early 60's for their shared unusual preference for cross-dressing, that is, dressing and acting as women. Fierstein has trod this sort of ground in previous works (such as La Cage aux Folles, Kinky Boots, and Torch Song Trilogy), but this tale takes us to a plane we've not been to before. And in truth, crass dressers they are not, as their accessories alone are to die for (for that period, that is); their choices in garb and in life are sensitive, by and large refined (with the exception of a schmata or two), and intelligent. It sure isn't Kansas.

The setting is the resort owned by George/Valentina (Thomas Derrah: “we are simply the outward expression of the interior female”) and his preternaturally understanding wife Rita (Kerry A. Dowling: “do you know what makes a man irresistible...thinking that you're the only woman in the world who understands him”). Huddled around and about are Bessie (Robert Saoud: “personally I think of being a boy as my day job”); the Judge/Amy (Timothy Crowe: “I stood staring at a gown open-mouthed with desire”); Jonathon/Miranda (Greg Maraio, quoting his wife: “any man who'd go to these lengths to make me laugh owns my heart forever”); Terry (Sean McGuirk: “oh, the terrible things I'd do to get punished and wear my precious gowns” when the common punishment was to demote a mischievous child back into petticoats); and Gloria (Eddie Shields: a hetero stud mesmerized by his women's “discarded clothing on the ground”). The seemingly close-knit troupe is about to be shaken and stirred by the arrival of Charlotte (Will McGarrahan: “I've gone to jail so that you don't have to...It's the curse of the Y chromosome and it's punishable by dearth..any male would have to be certifiable not to want to be female at least part time”). Charlotte has brought along his own political agenda, even though, as Bessie puts it, “politics and prosthetics don't mix”. And late in the play there's the sudden and invasive descent of the daughter of one of them, Eleanor (Deb Martin).

What develops among this group is almost subservient to the experience of sharing their alien world and how it functions (and at times dysfunctions). Strewn with hilarious one-liners and barbed banter, Fierstein's penchant for aiming for the jugular has never been as accurate and engrossing. Although the original Broadway run was a mere seventy-nine performances, it's a shame it didn't get more exposure, especially if it was enacted by a smashingly stellar stable of sequined stallions as this ensemble is. Led by Derrah in yet another deftly defiant portrayal in an incredibly prolific career, the cast effortlessly evades stereotyping even as they exemplify a rainbow of recognizable types. Dowling is the supportive partner personified, enhancing rather than enabling her spouse's dual lifestyle. Saoud spews devastatingly timed epigrammatic arrows (often thanks to a seemingly bottomless font of bons mots courtesy of Oscar Wilde) while McGuirk and Shields expertly parry them. Meanwhile, both Crowe and Maraio provide differing catalysts for what develops over what threatens to become a catastrophic weekend. Even Martin in a brief supporting role resonates. But it's McGarrahan who creates the juiciest character in perhaps his most memorable turn in an extraordinarily versatile professional history. As terrifically directed by Scott Edmiston, there's not a single false note, even when Fierstein goes quite a bit melodramatic near the close of the play. The creative team is also in synch. From the wonderfully evocative multi-level Scenic Design by Janie E. Howland, to the perfectly chosen Costume Design by Gail Astrid Buckley, to the effective Lighting Design by Karen Perlow and Sound Design by Dewey Dellay, this is an eminently watchable production.

All of this would be reason enough to see this show if it were solely dependent on its humor, but even more lies in store for any theatergoer hungry for heartbreaking humanity and heart. In very subtle ways (such as presenting some characters only in their cross-dressed selves, and identifying these characters in the cast list only by their female names), Fierstein conveys that even though they have a lot they have shared among themselves, they discover that they don't know one another as well as they had assumed. Add to this the growing realization that, as accepting as they are of their own enclave, there lies beneath many of their facades an ugly undercurrent of latent homophobia. McGarrhan's character in particular prophesizes (quite inaccurately, as it happens) the future marginalization of homosexuals alongside the (even more inaccurate) eventual acceptance of the cross-dressing alternate lifestyle.

This is easily the best reason for going to regional theater this season. It's what theater is all about. You'll laugh until your corset hurts and cry until your mascara runs, but if you miss this one you have only yourself to blame. And let's not hear another word about your not having a thing to wear.

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