by Terrance Mc Arthur
In a not-so-long-ago, less-tolerant time (1962), imagine a place—a secluded resort—where heterosexual men went to wear women’s clothing. That place existed, and so did the photos. Harvey Fierstein (actor-playwright: Torch Song Trilogy, La Cage aux Folles, Hairspray the musical, Kinky Boots) took that as the basis for Casa Valentina, the latest Stageworks Fresno production in Clovis North’s Dan Pessano Theatre through August 7.
George (Richard Ruth) and Rita (Jennifer Leigh Lewis), a married couple, run the resort. When guests are expected, George gets wigged, made up, and dressed to become “Valentina.” There are returning visitors (Michael Peterson, Joel C. Abels, Randy Kohlruss, Douglas Cox) and first-timers (Billy Jack Anderson, Justin Case Ray). As they interact, it becomes less about cross-dressing and more about finding a safe place to be human and accepted for all your frailties. An emissary from the outside world (Shannon Brewington) injects a different point of view that questions the carefree world the Casa’s guests have tried to create.
Ruth constructs two different characters of equal depth. While George is a fellow you might find at a business luncheon, a civic booster, Valentina is a kinder, gentler Tallulah Bankhead, someone you’d go to for the latest gossip. He shows the danger of living your dreams, when the dreams become more real than reality. Lewis has the most difficult job on the stage, making the audience care for a person who is deluding herself that this is a working marriage. She loves him, but is it a real marriage? Lewis is bubbly, kindly, practical, and curvy, but is Rita woman enough for George?
Abels is the wisecracking, self-deprecating Albert, who becomes “Bessie” in a dress, with voice and mannerisms borrowed from Nathan Lane. Bessie is lovable and harmless, even at her cattiest. This is a rich role for Abels, who usually directs StageWorks shows. His confidence fills the space, and there is no hesitation to his humor. Ray portrays Jonathan, a young married embarking on his first adventure in transvestitism in a group setting. Nervous, unsure, guilt-ridden, Jonathan begins to blossom as “Miranda,” with a group of sisters aiding the transformation, until a shattering moment.
Peterson is The Judge, a respected man who disappears on hunting trips to be “Amy,” a respected member of the group. He is a solid center, a giver of advice, trusted by the others. Kohlruss as Michael/”Gloria,” is the most striking-looking in the female attire. Cox is a floating vision in blue as Theodore/”Terry.” Brewington is bitter, blistering, and brutal, delivering the outside world’s opinion of the resort’s idea of good, clean fun.
The masqueraders revel in their ability to let out the “little girl” inside them, yet look down on homosexuals as undesirables. That’s when Anderson arrives, smooth, delicate, and attired in Jackie Kennedy style, an outsider with an agenda that might rip secrecy’s mask away from these pretenders. It’s funny, but not Milton Berle/Flip Wilson/Jamie Farr funny. These aren’t burlesques of femininity. It’s dramatic. It’s relevant. At its heart, it’s a mystery—Why is the post office asking questions, who is to blame, what is the motive?
What is normal? What is wrong? Is there room enough for different? Director J. Daniel Herring takes those questions and shows more sides of them than we might want to see. This is a play to think about, talk about, and argue about. Some people will think it goes too far; others will claim it doesn’t go far enough. Wherever it goes, it’s an enlightening trip, and this is an excellent cast of tour guides.
You can purchase tickets for Casa Valentina on the StageWorks website.
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