Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Review - Casa Valentina

There are still several Tony nominated plays I haven't seen, so I was very fortunate that a Tony voter boss offered to let me tag along to today's matinee of Harvey Fierstein's new play Casa Valentina.  I've been intrigued about the play since I first heard about it, I generally enjoy a Harvey Fierstein piece, plus many of my friends have enjoyed it a great deal.

I wanted to love Casa Valentina, I did, but I have to admit that I mainly just sort of enjoyed it.  I think the story is fascinating, but I didn't like the storytelling.  Or, not the storytelling exactly, but the conflict.  Ugh, maybe not the conflict, but how this conflict detracted from the stuff that engaged me.  Oh, I don't know what I mean.  I enjoyed the idea of the story, the characters Fierstein created and the actors were all amazingly fantastically first-rate.  But somehow the play didn't completely add up in my head.  Frustrating.

Casa Valentina takes place over a weekend in 1962 at a retreat in the Catskills - this particular retreat caters to straight men who like to dress as women.  I've never seen this particular story before (the retreat in the Catskills actually existed for years, so the play is inspired by real people and events), and I was greatly intrigued.  I always enjoy stories about identity, or people who ache to be seen.  As the play begins, we hear that in this weekend, there are two new guests, one of whom is an activist named Charlotte, who we discover is trying to make their 'sorority' official and no longer anonymous.  Charlotte also wants everyone to sign a loyalty oath swearing they aren't homosexual.  I found her fascinating - how someone who lives on the margins as a cross-dresser could be so homophobic and bigoted was eye-opening.  Reed Birney's performance as Charlotte was completely unaffected and brutally charming, yet ruthless.  But at the same time, the speechifying and didactic quality took away from the emotional connection I was dying to get.  It was as if it wasn't enough to have these characters show me something new, I had to be taught something as well, which isn't necessarily a bad thing, but...

photo credit: Matthew Murphy
OK, not that I didn't connect emotionally at some points in the play - the moment when the other new guest, a shy newbie named Jonathan (played enchantingly by Gabriel Ebert), looks in the mirror and sees himself as Miranda, after the other girls give her a makeover, is beautifully touching.  And anytime the brilliant John Collum shared wisdom, it broke my heart - his speech about how he learned he loved wearing feminine clothing was delightful, and when he refuses to sign Charlotte's loyalty oath because of the support he has always received from the homosexual community was shattering in its honest simplicity. The entire cast had affecting moments, but for me, the set-up was much more successful than the payoff.  And I can't quite put my finger on why, darn it.

You won't see a better acted, designed, or directed production of this play, I'll bet.  I did laugh and I did tear up, so something was there.  Even with my struggles, I definitely think Casa Valentina is worth seeing, if only to see this unique story set-up, beautifully portrayed by committed and supremely talented actors.  If the play itself wasn't totally successful and satisfying for me, oh well.  Any time spent with John Collum is time well-spent, in my opinion...

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