BWW Review: CASA VALENTINA at Little Theatre Of Mechanicsburg
Casa Valentina, written by Harvey Fierstein, is the story of a resort-a place where you can "live out your inner truth" and "escape from routine." It first opened on Broadway in 2014 and in London in 2015. Nominated for several Tony Awards including Best Play, Casa Valentina was inspired by the real cross-dressing resort Chevalier d'Eon (later named Casa Susanna) operating in the Catskills of New York in the 1950s and 1960s. Time's 2014 article "Casa Susanna: Photographs from a 1950s Transvestite Hideaway" features playwright Harvey Fierstein discussing his play and the place and people that inspired it. In this interview, he states, "Their dressing isn't so they can be with other girls and play bridge. Their dressing is to lose the male role...It's to become this idealized female" (https://time.com/3393976/casa-susanna-photographs-from-a-1950s-transvestite-hideaway/). Little Theatre of Mechanicsburg takes on this challenging play under the direction of Keith Bowerman through March 15th.
Costume designer Mandi L. Hurley, makeup artist Sarah Allwein, and wig stylist Cory Holtzman show off their amazing talents, assisting the actors in bringing out the "girl within." The show is performed on a stage bare of all but basic pieces of furniture to differentiate one room from another. This is the perfect set for keeping the focus on the characters and their stories in the wonderfully intimate setting of Little Theatre of Mechanicsburg. Stephen Hensel's lighting design is well done. While the actors occasionally stepped out of their light, the use of a spotlight to isolate certain scenes and to evoke the idea of a character looking into a mirror was interesting and creative.
There was one unfortunately large flaw in this production. The actor playing Bessie, who has the potential to be one of the most interesting characters in the show, had to use a script disguised as an Oscar Wilde book to help remember his lines. While his acting in the part was wonderful, and he stayed in character throughout the show, the difficulty with the lines broke up the dialogue and made it difficult to stay engaged in the world they were creating. The director and other actors did an admirable job at trying to diminish the impact of this issue, but on opening night it was too obvious to ignore. In spite of this, Casa Valentina is a show that deserves your attention, and the rest of the cast at Little Theatre of Mechanicsburg makes it a production worth the time to check out.
There are some particularly outstanding performances in this production. Becky Wilcox plays Rita, George's wife and partner in running the resort. Wilcox has a strong stage presence-a necessity for this role. Her interactions with Paul Whitman's George/Valentina are genuine and emotional, giving the audience a glimpse into her character's mind and complex feelings about her marriage. Whitman, portraying the title character George/Valentina, brings an intensity to the role right from the very beginning. Watching Whitman, the audience can sense the character's frustration, fear, and longing. There is a particularly powerful scene between Wilcox and Whitman in the second act that is absolutely heart-rending in the hands of these talented actors. When Megan T. McClain's Eleanor confronts them at the end of the show, their facial expressions and body language make the tension in the scene palpable.
Daniel Bixler and Michael Ausherman, who portray Gloria and Terry, play a large role in one of my favorite scenes-the makeover scene with Caleb Hudson's Jonathan/Miranda (along with his final scenes of the show, this is one of the scenes in which Hudson really shines). Most impressive, though, is Bixler's and Ausherman's performances during the business meeting. In the business meeting, Charlotte (played by Anthony J. Geraci) tries to convince them to make their group the first East Coast chapter of a recently recognized nonprofit social sorority for transvestites. This is the first scene that explores the hypocrisy of a group of people who have been marginalized and discriminated against practicing those same thoughts and behaviors toward another group-in this case, homosexuals. Bixler and Ausherman approach this scene with stirring conviction. As their characters express their unwillingness to go along with Charlotte and Valentina's affidavit pledging that they are not homosexual, Bixler and Ausherman deliver their lines with so much passion that they actually gave me chills.
Anthony J. Geraci is astonishing in his role as Charlotte. Geraci's Charlotte is strong, poised, and zealous. Charlotte is perhaps one of the more difficult characters to play, particularly today. As Fierstein explained to Time, he "had to get into the mind of a 1962 transvestite" to write the play. The character of Charlotte, a champion of the transvestite community, fervently believes that they must separate themselves from the gay rights movement. Geraci's scene with Robert Zaccano's Judge/Amy is acted so well that it is difficult to watch-it is an uncomfortable scene rife with strong emotions that Geraci and Zaccano act skillfully.
Casa Valentina is an extremely well-written and thought-provoking play. It is humorous, challenging, and heart-breaking. It requires us all to face our hidden prejudices while confronting questions about what "normal" means. In the words of director Keith Bowerman, "what really is 'normal', and who defines it? If someone does not meet that definition, are they an aberration? An abomination? And what if you don't necessarily meet your own definition of normal, what then to make of yourself?" To experience Fierstein's Casa Valentina for yourself, visit www.ltmpa.com for tickets.