Appropriating the Habits of Rabbits: “Casa Valentina”

Presented by SpeakEasy Stage Company
Written by Harvey Fierstein
Directed by Scott Edminston

Oct. 24 – Nov. Nov. 28, 2015
Stanford Calderwood Pavilion
Boston Center for the Arts
Boston, MA
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Review by Kitty Drexel

(Boston, MACasa Valentina is about men who relax by appropriating women’s culture,  and feminine identity. This cutting play by Harvey Fierstein examines the subversive transvestite subculture of the mid-1950’s. According to the healthily robust dramaturgy notes by Maureen Dezell, men would don wigs, hose and dresses to enjoy a quaint weekend in the Catskills. These men unwind from their rigid gender roles with a tube of lipstick and a stiff drink amidst the glory of the New York state. Suffice to say, this is not a production for conservative types with traditional notions of what is or is not acceptable behavior for men. Tread wisely.

George/Valentina (Thomas Derrah) and Rita (the ever astounding Kerry Dowling) run Casa Valentina a home away from home for a small transvestite community. Biologically male individuals are welcomed with open arms to dress in decadent splendor, and engage their most feminine of desires… so long as they are unequivocally heterosexual in nature. When the gals attend a Board meeting, Charlotte (Will McGarrahan) throws a wrench into the works. She has surprising news that threatens the sanctity of their resort. Alliances are made. Secrets are revealed. Hearts are broken.

Some feminists may not enjoy this one. There’s nothing quite like watching fictional men carelessly try on and cast off the rigid societal expectations that bind women. These men get to be pretty because they want to be pretty. It’s a choice. What’s more, these men still get to enjoy their male privilege. It is made clear by Fierstein that women are responsible for the housework necessary to keep the men fed, clean and happy. For the bio gals, it’s life as usual.

Fierstein’s characters may be oblivious to the oppression of the women around them but Fierstein is not. He takes pains to portray Rita as a long suffering wife who uses George’s transvestism as another way to love him. Rita ensures the guests are happy, get fed, and get along at great personal sacrifice. She’s entirely too relatable.

The ensemble work in this production is exemplary. Cast members work exceedingly well together while maintaining strong character individuality. The contrast between Bessie (Robert Saoud) and, say, Amy (Timothy Crowe) is striking – and not just because Crowe looks as unnatural in a dress as Saoud does out of one.

While not conventionally attractive, all of the ladies exude a certain je ne sais quoi. In particular, Thomas Derrah as Valentina is quite brilliant. There’s an elegant misery beneath the facade of Valentina’s apparent joy. Will McGarrahan is sinister as Charlotte. The proverbial snake in Paradise’s grasses. Sean McGuirk as Terry is the soft spoken grandma with a spine of iron you wish you had. Greg Maraio as Jonathan/Miranda the timid newcomer is touching. Maraio’s vulnerability is sweet like wine and just as intoxicating. Her failures and anxieties are ours too.

Case Valentina is about more than just lady larping. Conventional beauty is hard work. It costs a lot of money to look this cheap. It can be deeply crushing to realize that even all the makeup in the world won’t make you a traffic-stopping bombshell. More important in the journey towards self-realization is the notion that the person behind the makeup is far more significant than anything else bought it a store. We all forget this occasionally. If Casa Valentina teaches us anything, it’s that loving the self deserves a higher priority than adhering to unrealistic gender expectations.

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