How far should spousal loyalty go when your mate’s creative expression causes you emotional pain? When does a risqué hobby become deviancy—and who decides what’s deviant, anyway?
These are the questions examined in Dezart Performs’ production of Casa Valentina. Harvey Fierstein’s provocative play earned four Tony nominations, including one for Best New Play, in 2014. The time in Casa Valentina is 1962—a more innocent yet much less tolerant era. A group of professional heterosexual men gather at a bungalow in the Catskills to relax and blow off steam. They eat, drink, dance and laugh—all while dressed as women.
This haven for transvestites really existed, at a resort called Chevalier d’Eon, named after an 18th-century cross-dresser. The story was revealed when antiques dealer Robert Swopes stumbled across a box of pictures at a Manhattan flea market. Each photo captured these men in all their feminine glory: Bewigged and clad in dresses, heels and pearls, group members were shown doing mundane things like sipping coffee and playing cards. Intrigued, Swopes purchased the photos and put them together in a book called Café Susanna in 2005.
In the play, the establishment (here called “Casa Valentina”) is run by George (aka Valentina), played by Scott Smith, and his long-suffering wife, Rita (Tammy Hubler). As the show opens, they are preparing for yet another weekend of hosting men who relax by taking on their female personas for a few days. The couple is anticipating the arrival of a new guest, Jonathan (Cameron Shingler), also known as Miranda.
The strong bond between Rita and George is apparent. They banter back and forth while she lovingly pins on his wig cap as he begins his transformation into Valentina. It’s clear that Rita long ago accepted her husband’s predilection, and adores him in spite of it. “There’s no secret to being popular with men … just never say no,” she says. Smith is excellent as Valentina. You can feel both his devotion to Rita and his compulsion to express his feminine side.
Soon we meet Albert/Bessie (Jeffrey Norman), resplendent in an over-sized housecoat and hot pink turban. A plus-sized cross-dresser, Bessie relishes every moment as a woman. Norman is a hoot as he tosses off some of the best lines in the show. When someone brings up the inadequacies of the male form, Bessie quips, “I once had a male form; I filled it out and mailed it back!”
A pivotal character in the play is the judge (the exceptional Bruce Cronander), who strides in with a shotgun. His professional position and penchant for firearms are irrelevant when he slips off his robe to reveal a floral satin dress and coos, “Hello, Amy, I’ve missed you!”
When Theodore/Terry (the fabulous Garnett Smith) must jump up shortly after perching on a chair, he complains, “Just when I got my skirt to lay right on the first try.”
Cameron Shingler ably captures the awkwardness and insecurity young Jonathan feels as the newcomer to the group. Getting settled in his room, he clutches a flowered frock, seemingly not knowing what to do with it. The other “girls” soon rally around him, giving him a proper makeover, complete with phony breasts and hips, cosmetics and jewelry. Their enthusiastic efforts to transform him into Miranda are touching.
The cast is excellent across the board, but San Diego resident Dale Morris as Isadore/Charlotte deserves special mention. Looking stunning in his gold lame blouse, designer suite and heels, he clearly revels in the freedom to express his inner diva. But he also knows the risk involved in theses activities, and chafes at society’s disapproval. As he admonishes one of the group’s younger members, “I’ve gone to jail so you don’t have to!”
Kevin Coubal (Michael/Gloria) is the most traditionally attractive woman of the group, by far. Statuesque in his heels, he flips his long auburn curls constantly and really works it. He is the standout when the girls perform a cute lip-synced version of “Bye, Bye Blackbird” with the jukebox.
Louise Ross appears briefly toward the end of the play as Eleanor, the judge’s daughter. The always-dependable Ross ably conveys the pain, anger and resentment as she deals with her cross-dressing family member.
Things turn serious when Charlotte announces that the “sorority” has incorporated as a nonprofit organization and needs to appoint officers. Some members aren’t thrilled about that, preferring to just keep things as they are. Their weekend escapades are harmless, they say, and the fewer people who know about them, the better. But Charlotte argues that secrecy is the enemy. Then things really get crazy when Charlotte asks each member to sign a document barring homosexuals from joining the group. In 1962, it seems, cross-dressers believed that putting on a dress was OK, but actually having sex with a man was true deviancy. The guests at Casa Valentina are divided on the issue. Since the gay community often accepted “the girls” when no on else would, they feel the need to return that loyalty. The booze-fueled tension finally explodes in an act of violence.
The costumes, makeup, wigs and lighting are all right on the money. There was only one problem with Dezart’s Casa Valentina on opening night, but it was distracting: There were many occasions when some of the actors could not be heard. In a theater the size of the Pearl McManus, one would not think that body microphones should be necessary. The hum of the building’s air conditioning unit was a factor, but it really comes down to projecting: Actors of this caliber know how to project, and did so during much of the show. But at several dramatic moments, the actors were inaudible. It was particularly annoying when much of the audience could not hear the last two or three lines of the play, delivered by the otherwise-superb Tammy Huber.
This an important play and a terrific production. Michael Shaw’s direction is spot-on. I only hope he corrects the sound issue so valley audiences can enjoy Casa Valentina in its entirety.
Casa Valentina, a production of Dezart Performs, is performed at 7:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Saturday and Sunday, through Sunday, Nov. 13, at the Pearl McManus Theater (inside the historic Palm Springs Woman’s Club), 314 S. Cahuilla Road, in downtown Palm Springs. Tickets run $25 to $30. For tickets or more information, call 760-322-0179, or visit www.dezartperforms.org.