Embracing the Inner Woman in ‘Casa Valentina’

Written By: Mindy Leaf

The great American playwright (also acclaimed actor and screenwriter) of “Torch Song Trilogy” and “Hairspray” fame, and early “out” gay celebrity Harvey Fierstein, 68, still questions his gender identity. But he’s okay with that. In a 2022 interview, Fierstein confided: “I’m still confused as to whether I’m a man or a woman…. As a boy attracted to men, finding out about gay was enough.” The term non-binary bothers him, though, as he’s simply “comfortable being me and if I ask myself, ‘Would you want to transition? The answer’s no.”

Fierstein’s lengthy career successfully encompasses work across the gender spectrum and is a lasting tribute to the power of embracing all of one’s aspects – no matter how unique. But as an artist, he’s also deeply aware of societal condemnation and ostracization both without and within the LGBTQ+ community. In 2014 Fierstein’s CASA VALENTINA debuted on Broadway and soon after in London. This revelatory dramatic comedy casts a laser-sharp lens on the inner lives, dreams and conflicts shared by a “sorority” of outwardly heterosexual crossdressers who live for secret stolen weekends at a Catskills resort where they can safely indulge their passion for dressing and acting like women. The core group has been coming to Casa Valentina for decades. We join six regulars and one newbie for 14 hours in 1962.

In today’s stifling political climate of banning even uttering the word “gay,” not to mention withholding support for transgender youth and shuttering drag performances – part of a prejudicial backward deluge that’s been flooding our state and, sadly, large swaths of our country – “Casa Valentina” could not be more timely. Kudos to director David Simson for championing this “heartbreaking and heartwarming” play at a time when we all need to be reminded of the beauty of humanity in all its forms and the dangers of mob oppression. I also thank David R. Gordon and Empire Stage for mounting the production at their intimate Flagler Village, Fort Lauderdale theater – where we sit so close to the action, we almost feel like Casa Valentina guests ourselves. Finally, a shout out to the show’s co-producers: B. Daniels, Leslie Kandel, Bob Sharkey, David Simson, and Richard Van Berkel.

Except for two actors referred to as “GGs” (standing for Genuine Girls or Genetic Girls) which bookend the play, the nine cast members are listed in the program by their male/female personas. They typically enter dressed as white-collar businessmen, often married with children, from respectable professions … there’s even a judge. With one exception: the celebrity arrival of the West Coast publisher of a national transvestite magazine who lives openly as a heterosexual crossdresser and is fighting for public acceptance. 

Isadore/Charlotte (Jack G. Hyman) recently achieved non-profit status for her group in California and has come to lobby the New Yorkers for their public support, and signatures, in order to establish an East Coast chapter of their special sorority. But many are comfortable with the way things are. Even if their families suspect something’s off (and many don’t or won’t), they aren’t willing to upend their careers and their lives by going public. How this issue is addressed in both imploring and evil ways – as Charlotte is not adverse to blackmail and ugly homophobic remarks – comes to a head in the highly charged second act. 

But first we get to know this group of delightfully opinionated “ladies.” We watch their  careful transition from properly attired men to fully decked-out women as they apply makeup, don wigs, jewelry and fancy ladies’ dresses aided by undergarment support. Then breathe a sigh of relief as they welcome their beloved “inner woman” selves.

Greeting each arrival is the incredibly warm and efficient hotel manager, Rita, wife of cross-dressing George/Valentina whose dream of creating a country refuge for men like himself she’d embraced from the start. I consider Leslie Kandel, in the part of Rita, the true star of the show. She smoothly runs the place – even taking on cooking responsibilities when staff abruptly abandons her for a higher paying wedding gig – and continues to offer a sympathetic ear and coffee to any and all comers. 

Rita’s the embodiment of a perfect wife and hostess. So it’s all the more painful to watch her anguish, toward the end, when she realizes her true place in the marriage … to observe her tortured eyes and quivering lips till her face simply crumples in despair, then abruptly rearranges itself into stoic resolve. A truly heart-wrenching but magnificent performance.

But back to the charming opening scene with Rita assuaging the fears of young first-timer Jonathan/Miranda, sensitively portrayed by Christian Cooper. Plenty of the humor and festive action revolve around getting this novice acclimated to the group and properly dressed via one of their all-time-favorite activities: a Makeover Party. Fierstein’s legendary wit infuses the play, and here’s a perfect example. When Miranda first declines their offer of help, she’s met with: “We’re still men inside. And men aren’t happy till we can open our tool chest and fix something.” Miranda’s group makeover is fascinating to watch, and she does emerge as the prettiest young lady.

We also get to observe George transform himself into Valentina, the play’s namesake, performed by B. Daniels who can be quite humorous but also ruthless when it comes to his inn’s survival. He greets Bessie (imposingly tall and turbaned Jeremy Quinn) as an “old thing” and “living proof that the good die young.” But Bessie insists on helping Miranda with, “I’m not young, rich or pretty. Kind is what I’ve got.” 

Valentina backs Charlotte’s mission of establishing an East Coast chapter of the sorority at his hotel, with himself as president, as a way to get more publicity and visitors because he’s struggling financially. Yet when Theodore/Terry (Bob Sharkey) suggests opening up their clientele to drag queens and homosexuals, he’s as horrified at the idea as Charlotte, stating, “I am not queer and I don’t want people to think I am, goddammit!” Only Terry fondly recalls how it was homosexuals who first accepted who she was, claiming they are all outcasts and should join forces.

How is this for an ironic 1962 Charlotte prediction? “Fifty years from now, homosexuality will still be shunned while cross-dressing will be as acceptable as smoking.”

Charlotte had gone to jail for the cause and simply can’t accept that others are adverse to going public so “they can be accepted in normal society.” “Just imagine if the world realized we are happy transvestites,” she proclaims. Voluble interchanges ensue among the women that include Michael/Gloria played by Larry Chidsey in a swirly, bright-lemon dotted dress. 

The last two cast members to arrive carry the play’s heft and bring the action from mere eavesdropping on a friendly, albeit unusual, getaway reunion to powerful denouement. Apparently people from all walks of life can harbor evil tricks for political gain, pure hatred of the other (even if you, too, are an “other”), and deep-seated self-loathing imbibed from years of social scorn. 

When the Judge/Amy (Richard Forbes) is exposed to be more than just another transvestite, when he’s blackmailed and suddenly succumbs to a long-repressed urge, a crescendo of deep-seated emotions are unleashed. Next, representing the ongoing pain that a hidden alternate life can create for a conventional family, we get to witness the long-suppressed angry outburst of the Judge’s daughter Eleanor (Christine Chavers). 

I’m in awe at how the playwright succinctly and dramatically illustrates the true nature of various iterations of the trans community and the possible repercussions their proclivities created for their families and society-at-large in 1960’s America. He opens a door into a world many of us know nothing about, makes us care for its inhabitants, and empathize with their pleasures, struggles and concerns. All the while keeping us consummately entertained.

The play features many short scenes punctuated by musical interludes of the era. My friend and I totally enjoyed being reacquainted with some of our favorite 1950s and ‘60s hit songs. She even remarked at being surprised at how great these old songs were. The lyrics or music tended to reflect the action. There’s even a Halo Shampoo jingle. 

You can look forward to hearing excerpts of “The Wayward Wind,” “Blue Velvet,” “Return to Sender,” to name a few, culminating appropriately with “Secret Love.” Audio design by David Hart and lighting by Preston Bircher were flawless as always. Great costumes and props courtesy of The Heights Players of Brooklyn, NY. Swift furniture reassembly thanks to scenic design by Jimmy Cartee and those fabulous big-hair wigs were designed by Nelson Bray. 

And while the play is a work of fiction, you might be interested to learn that its premise is based on a real-life, somewhat dilapidated Catskills’ resort that’s long been dedicated to the open enjoyment of the transvestite lifestyle. Originally named The Chevalier d’Eon after the legendary 18th Century crossdresser and spy, it was later called Casa Susanna after the female persona of its Cuban-American owner, also known as Tito Valenti. And Tito/Susanna’s wife, just like Rita in our story, was originally a wig maker from Manhattan. 

Applause for Christian Cooper (front center), Leslie Kandel (to his left), B. Daniels (to
his right), and the entire unforgettable cast of CASA VALENTINA by Harvey Fierstein.
Playing now through May 28 at Empire Stage in Fort Lauderdale. Photos by Richard
Van Berkel.

Don’t miss spending a day with the lovely and not-so-lovely ladies of CASA VALENTINA by Harvey Fierstein, playing now through May 28 at Empire Stage, 1140 N. Flagler Drive, Fort Lauderdale 33304. For tickets go to www.empirestage.com or call 954-678-1496. 

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