With Harvey Fierstein’s Casa Valentina, SpeakEasy Stage Company continues its mission of gifting theatergoers with Boston premieres. Set in 1962 at a Catskills resort called the Chevalier d’Eon, a real-life summer haven for heterosexual cross-dressers, a group of straight men secretly gather to dress and behave like women for a few carefree days away from their wives and their children.
This particular gathering isn’t so carefree, though: George, who runs d’Eon with his wife, Rita, finds himself in hot water after he’s summoned by the postal inspector to discuss some inflammatory photos found in an envelope that was addressed to him. (Like SpeakEasy’s last production, appropriate, questionable photos act as one of the play’s major catalysts.) The resort is also on the brink of bankruptcy, and George is hoping that Charlotte, a West Coast transvestite who runs a controversial magazine championing the rights of cross-dressers (and is on parole because of it) can bail him out. Like George and Rita, Charlotte is also based on a real person.
When Charlotte challenges her friends to reveal their identities to the world in the name of social and political acceptance, all of their convictions and beliefs are called into question. You see, homosexual attendance has always been frowned upon, and when the attending ladies are asked to make that exclusion official in the form of an affidavit, we are afforded a more precise look into the psychology of heterosexual cross-dressing and the very many different reasons that some feel they must hide themselves away for a weekend of brassieres and blush.
In a conversation with Naveen Kumar, playwright Harvey Fierstein said, “There are no two people in the play who dress for the same reason, who are the same sexually.” When reading the play, it shocked and surprised me that these straight men—who were never as happy as when they were dressing and acting like women—would be so condemnatory towards gays. “These men believed—remember we’re talking 1962, before Stonewall, before liberation—that no decent, God-fearing society would ever accept homosexuals as normal. So in the play, Charlotte is speaking politically. The feeling was, we kill two birds with one stone by banning homosexuals: We get our wives to understand that we don’t want to have sex with each other (which, like I said, was not true of everyone), and we tell society there’s no reason to be frightened of us, because we’re not looking at your dicks,” said Fierstein.
Casa Valentina received warm notices when it premiered on Broadway last spring at the Manhattan Theatre Club and scored a handful of Tony nominations, including one for Best Play. Director Scott Edmiston is at the helm here, fresh off of his solid gold production of My Fair Lady at the Lyric Stage Company. The cast is made up of some of Boston’s best talent, including the ubiquitous, always-reliable Will McGarrahan, who is stepping into Charlotte’s heels.
Fierstein is no stranger to men wearing dresses: From his work as a playwright on Torch Song Trilogy, La Cage Aux Folles, and Kinky Boots, as well as his Tony-winning performance as Edna in Hairspray, it’s kind of what put him on the map. Valentina is different, though: “Harvey Fierstein has written some wonderful, complex characters in Casa Valentina. Yes, it also has men wearing dresses and some funny lines, but the similarity really stops there,” said McGarrahan.
“It is true that our culture is not familiar with cross-dressing heterosexual men as, say, drag performers,” said McGarrahan. “Cross-dressing is an umbrella term that refers to the act of a person wearing clothes associated with the opposite sex. It is a term that does not address sexual or gender identity.”
“We have our own prejudices when it comes to a story like this,” said Fierstein. “There are going to be a lot of people who say, “This couldn’t have been,” or that I don’t know what I’m talking about. The truth is, I’ve worked very hard to make sure I’m expressing it right, and I don’t come to conclusions in the play. Because I think it’s bullshit to come to conclusions when I know the truth isn’t the same for any two people.”
As one of the lovely ladies says mid-way through the play: “Some try to make sense of it. Some don’t.”
CASA VALENTINA. RUNS 10.24-11.28 AT SPEAKEASY STAGE COMPANY AT THE BCA. 527 TREMONT ST., BOSTON.SPEAKEASYSTAGE.COM