Casa Valentina, Harvey Fierstein’s fact-inspired gender-bending trip down Catskills memory lane, now gets a sensational Pasadena Playhouse West Coast Premiere, one you’ll be talking and thinking about long after the 2014 Best Play Tony nominee’s stunning final fade to black.
To the outside world, George and Rita (Robert Mammana and Valerie Mahaffey) would appear to be nothing more than your average everyday 40something man and wife. Within the safe confines of their Chevalier d’Eon Resort, however, George exchanges his button-down shirt and tie for form-fitting female garb, the better to become “Valentina” and welcome a gaggle of similarly clad married heterosexuals for a break from the wife and kids.
Joining “Casa Valentina” regulars this June weekend is first-time cross-dresser Jonathon (James Snyder), alternately thrilled and terrified at the prospect of his feminine alter ego Miranda finding herself surrounded by like-minded fellas in frocks: flamboyant, Oscar Wilde-quoting plus-sized Bessie (Raymond McAnally), genteel 70ish Southern belle Terry (Lawrence Pressman), feisty old broad Amy (John Vickery), and redheaded stunner Gloria (Mark Jude Sullivan).
This is no ordinary weekend, however, for Casa Valentina has also opened its doors to West Coast transvestite activist Charlotte (Christian Clemenson), who’s come with a proposition, that the entire Chevalier d’Eon inner circle sign their names to a document declaring to the world not only who they are (straight men who enjoy dressing and acting like women, and the more authentically the better) but who they are not, i.e. homosexuals.
And as if this weren’t already enough, George has earlier today been questioned by the police about an envelope of pornographic photos sent anonymously to his address and intercepted by the local postal authorities.
Charlotte’s proposal is greeted by a variety of responses, from agreement (visibility equals strength, and for Chevalier d’Eon a new lease on a failing business venture) to fear (these men could go to jail, their careers and lives ruined, simply for cross-dressing in the less than tolerant early ‘60s) to outrage (one of them remembers when homosexuals were the only human beings on this earth who welcomed him as her).
Because this is Harvey Fierstein, audiences can expect plenty of clever bons mots along with an occasional line that comes across more like a carefully constructed political sound bite than something one might actually say in the course of casual conversation.
Still, even with its imperfections, Casa Valentina is about as exciting a new piece of theater as I’ve seen in the past several years, and the fact that we get to meet some characters as both men and women and some only as their female selves only adds to the play’s mysteries and allure.
The always terrific Mammana gives us a man whose marriage to the equally splendid Mahaffey may not be able withstand the presence of “other woman” Valentina.
Snyder is so wonderful (and heartbreaking) as the fearful Jonathon-turned-ecstatically liberated Miranda that you wish he/she didn’t disappear through a good chunk of Act One. (The girls’ eager makeover of the initially frumpy Miranda is a particular delight.)
Sullivan, too, is a standout as the gorgeous, enigmatic Gloria. (As a college student Michael joyously banged just about every co-ed in sight, and now he’s one of them.)
Pressman and Vickery bring decades of acting credits (and accompanying wisdom and gravitas) to Terry and Amy, and Nike Doukas shows up late in the game in a brief but powerful cameo.
Tom Buderwitz’s stunning set, as ingenious and effective a multi-level revolving-stage design as I’ve seen, has been exquisitely lit by Jared A. Sayeg. Kate Bergh’s pretty-as-a-picture costumes, Philip G. Allen’s hit parade-filled soundtrack, Rick Geyer’s nostalgic wig/hair/makeup design, and Mark Esposito’s girl-group choreography situate us smack dab at the start of the 1960s. Fight choreographer Mike Mahaffey gives us a believable woman-to-woman scuffle when push comes to punch.
Casting is by Jeff Greenberg. Mark Capri, Dukas, Matthew Magnusson, and Sean Smith are the main cast’s more than capable understudies. Jill Gold is production stage manager and Julie Ann Renfro is stage manager. Additional program credits go to Joe Witt (general manager), Brad Enlow (technical director), and Christopher Cook (production manager).
Following Pasadena Playhouse’s sensational 2016-opening Fly, Harvey Fierstein’s Casa Valentina proves that lightning can not only strike twice in the same place, it can do so twice in a row.
Pasadena Playhouse, 39 South El Molino Ave., Pasadena.
March 20, 2016
Photos: Jim Cox Photography