BWW Review: Lesser Known Players' CASA VALENTINA Feels Tentative at Best
One of our best living playwrights, in my opinion, is Mr. Harvey Fierstein. With his rich, vibrant characters and crackling dialog, he never ceases to surprise with his works and his raw honest approach to storytelling. Well back in 2014 he came out with a new piece, "Casa Valentina", and I was lucky enough to catch it on Broadway and it was just as amazing as one might expect. Now in 2018, Lesser Known Players has come along with the Seattle Premiere of this amazing work, however their production does not do justice to this fantastic piece as, with some few exceptions, they lacked the commitment and intent to pull it off.
The play examines a tumultuous time in LGBTQ history when, in the 1960's, men would retreat to isolated wooded resorts to release their inner female. One such resort is owned by George and Rita (Tom Stewart and Janette Oswald) in the Catskills. George, who also goes by Valentina, is particularly anxious this weekend as in addition to their usual guests descending, they're having money issues, George is being questioned over some questionable material that was sent to him in the mail, and the head of a national sorority of transvestites, Charlotte (Patrick J Lucey Conklin), is coming for a visit with some big news that could change their little group forever.
The play, itself, is a stunner dealing with how, even back then, the LGBTQ community was so splintered as to feel the need to formally exclude their brothers and sisters who were just as persecuted just because their expression of self was different. I only wish it were in the hands of a better production. Director Derek Villanueva's pace of the piece feels clunky and uneven with a static "park and bark" kind of staging as people rarely move. And his insistence to use live music for the scene changes just lengthens them dragging things out. The set from Gary Fetterplace just looks unfinished and the lighting design from Rebecca Blackwell is an enigma. Not every speech needs its own special with everyone else in darkness.
As I said, the cast is uneven. There are some bright spots. Stewart manages some wonderful moments as he navigates trying to stay true to his friends and his wife but still keep his place open. Doug Knoop as the irrepressible Bessie brings in some much-needed comedy and life to the play. Tony Magana, Jr. as the newbie Miranda has some lovely moments but needed to be able to open up more. And in the smallest part of the play with only one scene, Danielle Daggerty as Eleanor comes in like a delightfully committed freight train. The rest of the cast suffers from a lack of intention to who they are, what they want, how to bring in multiple levels to a performance and, most egregiously what they need to say as many were struggling with remembering their lines all night long making the play that is all conversation sound not at all natural and conversational.
I'll admit I was quite excited that a company was taking on this wonderful play, but it deserves so much better. And so, with my three-letter rating system, I give Lesser Known Players production of "Casa Valentina" a highly disappointed MEH-. I've been hoping for a great production of this show to share with others since 2014. I'll have to keep hoping.
"Casa Valentina" from Lesser Known Players performs at the Erickson Theatre through October 28th. For tickets or information visit them online at www.lesserknownplayers.org.