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BWW Review: CASA VALENTINA: High-heeled Politics

Casa Valentina

Written by Harvey Fierstein, Directed by Scott Edmiston; Scenic Design, Janie E. Howland; Costume Design, Gail Astrid Buckley; Lighting Design, Karen Perlow; Original Music/Sound Design, Dewey Dellay; Production Stage Manager, Dawn Schall Saglio; Assistant Stage Manager, Fatimah Mateen

CAST: Timothy Crowe, Thomas Derrah, Kerry A. Dowling, Greg Maraio, Deb Martin, Will McGarrahan, Sean McGuirk, Robert Saoud, Eddie Shields

Performances through November 28 at SpeakEasy Stage Company, Roberts Studio Theatre, Calderwood Pavilion at the Boston Center for the Arts, 527 Tremont Street, Boston, MA; Box Office 617-933-8600 or www.SpeakEasyStage.com

When you step into the Roberts Studio Theatre in the Calderwood Pavilion at the Boston Center for the Arts, you will feel like you've entered a time warp to a Catskills resort in 1962, with the sounds of the McGuire Sisters coming from the phonograph, the women attired in cocktail dresses beneath their bouffant hairstyles, and everyone getting giddy about performing a makeover on a new guest. Their carefree camaraderie camouflages the secret shared by the visitors to the woodland hideaway, a group of heterosexual men drawn together by the opportunity to release the girl within. Welcome to the SpeakEasy Stage Company production of Casa Valentina, the New England Premiere of Harvey Fierstein's 2014 Tony Award nominee for Best Play. Based on actual events, the play invites and initiates the audience into a world where normal is in the eye of the beholder and each man has his own reason for cross-dressing.

Fierstein shares the stories of seven men who leave their families and jobs behind for a vacation from the gender restrictions that society imposes. Thanks to the safe retreat provided by George/Valentina (Thomas Derrah) and his wife Rita (Kerry A. Dowling), the men can don their makeup, wigs, and frocks without fear of judgment or public scrutiny, forging a fellowship that they refer to as "the sorority." However, when activist Charlotte (Will McGarrahan), the publisher of a magazine for the transvestite community, pays a visit to the group to recruit them to her battle for political acceptance, boundaries are crossed and their solidarity is impugned. Rather than standing together on Charlotte's platform for change, each of them has to confront his/her own face in the mirror and determine where his allegiance belongs.

Derrah and McGarrahan represent the dramatic conflict that is front and center in Casa Valentina, as George hopes to save his resort from bankruptcy by aligning with Charlotte, even as the latter's desire to go public goes against the credo that has made it a safe haven for the girls. Charlotte believes that they will be free once people see what it is that they do, suggesting that distancing themselves from homosexuals will be the key to mainstream acceptance, but Terry (Sean McGuirk) refuses to throw the gays under the bus, and The Judge/Amy (Timothy Crowe) fears that his reputation will be ruined and he will lose his pension. Every one of the characters is affected and participates in the discussion, but Bessie (Robert Saoud) questions the need to pursue more than they already have, and Gloria (Eddie Shields) is a voice of reason, refusing to blindly accept the conditions being laid out. Jonathon/Miranda (Greg Maraio) is new to the group and sits outside with Rita, but they don't miss any of the arguments.

Casa Valentina is a strong ensemble piece with great chemistry across the board. Saoud's Bessie is the life of the party, forever quoting Oscar Wilde, and his comic timing makes every line land with the punch it deserves. Valentina is the belle of the ball, the hostess with the mostess, and she comes alive when Derrah covers his bald pate with her wig, zips up her flowery dress, and squeezes his feet into her feminine pumps. His transformation from dour George to vivacious Valentina seems to happen from the inside out, spreading through every fiber of his being. The other miraculous transformation comes courtesy of Maraio; his awkward, uncomfortable, fish-out-of-water Jonathon virtually blossoms once his fellow travelers make him over as Miranda. You haven't seen a girl so happy with her appearance since the Fairy Godmother waved her wand over Cinderella. When midnight metaphorically comes, Maraio's return to Jonathon's persona will break your heart.

McGarrahan fleshes out Charlotte's complexity; she is tough as nails and devoted to her cause, but with the greater good in mind. She is willing to be the face of the fight and take the inherent risks, but she is somewhat myopic where the others are concerned. She hasn't achieved her success by being nice or playing fair, and Charlotte strikes like a cobra to get what she wants. Gloria doesn't back down from her and Shields shows great range in his portrayal. One minute he's the coquette, the next he's standing up to arguably the strongest femme fatale in the group. In a breakout performance, he nails the feminine posture and carriage, while maintaining an aura of masculinity, perhaps exemplifying the duality of these half male/half female men.

Casa Valentina is the story of the men and the movement, but it does not ignore the role played by the women in their lives. Dowling's earth mother quality is an asset in her portrayal of the understanding wife/innkeeper. Rita is warm and welcoming to all the guests, but really opens her big heart to Jonathan and takes him under her wing. She accepts her husband's proclivities, but Dowling lets us see her underlying insecurity as she admits her concern that George might get swallowed up by Valentina one day. Deb Martin plays the only other female role, appearing late in the play as the Judge's embittered daughter, and makes an impression with her ferocity.

Director Scott Edmiston achieves the right balance between the humor and the pathos, and he establishes a pace that allows the quips to fly fast and furiously. However, he wisely takes his foot off the accelerator in many of the scenes that involve Charlotte pushing her agenda. He knows what his actors are capable of and lets them strut their stuff. Janie E. Howland's rustic set design evokes the country resort, in contrast with the party fashions designed by Gail Astrid Buckley. Karen Perlow alters the lighting to suggest fourteen hours passing at the bungalow, and Dewey Dellay provides original music and sound design. The result is a well-written, well-acted, and artfully designed production that is funny, provocative, touching, and authentic. Regardless of your gender identity, you'll benefit from a getaway to Casa Valentina.

Photo credit: Glenn Perry Photography (foreground - Will McGarrahan, Eddie Shields, Sean McGuirk, Kerry A. Dowling, Thomas Derrah; rear - Robert Saoud, Greg Maraio)


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From This Author Nancy Grossman