Review: Casa Valentina

wpid-cam00513.jpgI didn’t really want to write about Casa Valentina, the new Harvey Fierstein play at Manhattan Theatre Club‘s Friedman Theatre. Something about the cross-dressing bothered me. This morning on the way to work I said to myself: “Ugh Julia when did you get so freaking heteronormative?” The last thing I wanted to do was blog about my discomfort for all the Internet to see. But then I went a-Googling and came to more of an understanding.

Actually let me back up and explain a bit. Casa Valentina is the story of a group of straight, married men in the early sixties who spend weekends at a lodge up in the Catskill mountains. Once they arrive, they assume feminine personas. The weekends consist of chitchat, card games, makeovers, dancing. Basically it’s a slumber party. Most of these men don’t want to live fully transgendered lives and are content with the occasional secret weekend away as girls. Problem is, one of the girls (the wonderful Reed Birney as Charlotte) wants the rest to go public. She proposes signing a pact stating they are not gay; the goal is to gain some social acceptance as cross dressers in the real world. She says, incredibly enough:

“Fifty years from now, when homosexuals are still scuttling about as the back-alley vermin of society, cross-dressing will be as everyday as cigarette smoking.”

I usually hate lines like this. A character makes a wildly incorrect prediction about the future and the audience laughs knowingly. It’s a lazy playwriting trick. But in this case it’s forgivable, because the world Charlotte describes is so difficult to imagine now. In any case, the other girls are deeply uncomfortable with the idea of cutting off gays. Gays, they point out, are the only people who have ever accepted them. The issue becomes more personal in the second act, when a central conflict is the question of whether a character is secretly gay or not.

Anyway, my mixed feelings, I think, had to do with the way these characters see women. I kept thinking about how these people had no concept of what life as a woman was really like, especially in that era. During the play I hoped the central couple, the married pair who owns the resort, would have it out about this. When was the supportive, caring Rita (Mare Winningham) going to tell her husband George (Patrick Page) that he was dressing up and acting in such a way that ultimately played up gender stereotypes, rather than fighting them? (To be fair, she does note at one point that these men might wear dresses but they don’t understand women very well, but it’s something of a throwaway line.)

However, reading a few articles about the original inspiration for the play (a real-life lodge called Casa Susanna) helped me to understand their predicament a lot better. There’s a line in the show about how nice it is to escape the responsibilities of being male, but Mr. Fierstein articulated it better in an interview with Time:

“Their dressing is to lose the male role. ‘I don’t have to take the car in. I’m freed from having all the answers. I’m freed from being the breadwinner.’ It’s to take on the female – they call it ‘the girl within.’ It’s to become this idealized female… It’s all the pleasures and none of the pain [of being a woman], because it’s a fantasy,” Fierstein notes. “It has nothing to do with being a real woman — except that some of these men went on to become women.”

And I was suddenly fascinated. I now saw these men as being just as straitjacketed into their predefined gender roles as the women were. Plus I had questions. Which characters went on to become full-time women? What were their experiences as transgender women in the 1960s? Are they still alive? It’s never a good thing when you need to read newspaper articles for insights that could have been contained within the play. Ultimately, I found this 2006 New York Times article on Casa Susanna to be more fascinating than Casa Valentina. Reading about the real lives of these people finally made me step out of my problematic “But what about the WOMEN?” frame of mind, which I couldn’t seem to do during the show itself.

So ultimately, I think my interests (forced gender roles) and Mr. Fierstein’s dramatic focus (the cross dressing community’s relationship with the gay community, the search for “normal”) just didn’t quite fit together. Still: with a Fierstein play you get some consolations. His wit is still in full force, with plenty of great one-liners and compelling monologues. He also creates a warm community between the girls; you get a real sense of the camraderie of the lodge. Plus, the performances are all-around excellent. (Praise here also goes to director Joe Mantello.) Ultimately, Casa Valentina brought me into the world of a group of people I don’t often encounter. Clearly this is a thought-provoking and worthy topic: it certainly helped me to question my own assumptions. (So much so that I’ll probably regret posting this!)

Oh, and one more thing. Casa Valentina had something in common with most of the Broadway shows I see, which is the standing ovation at the end of the performance. I’m always disappointed when an audience stands at the end of a show, but I generally join along with them anyway, just so I can see the bows. There’s really no point in fighting it. It’s like being annoyed at pedestrians walking in the bike lane, or commuters clipping their fingernails on the subway. People are going to do what they’re going to do. No use speechifying against it. Perhaps that’s partially because theater tickets are so expensive these days. Wouldn’t it be nice, though, if a standing ovation was reserved for the best thing you’ve seen in years?

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