Harvey Fierstein’s Tony nominated play, “Casa Valentina”, gets its West Coast premiere at Pasadena Playhouse with a luminous cast full of Broadway & television veterans and directed with grace and pathos by David Lee.
The genesis of the play came from a collector’s flea market purchase of a box full of old photographs. What first appeared to be photos of women gathering in an early 1960’s bungalow in the Catskills for a weekend getaway turned out to be, upon closer inspection, a group of men. “Casa Valentina” is based on this true story of average, white collar, heterosexual men who escaped to their very own Shangri-La where they cross-dressed and let their inner woman out for the weekend!
Fierstein’s play is thought provoking, touching and a whole lot of fun and this stellar cast makes it a pleasure to spend an afternoon getting to know these compelling characters. Robert Mammana plays George whose female persona is the hostess with the mostest, Valentina, who runs the Chevalier d’Eon with his accepting wife, Rita, played with genuine warmth and vulnerability by Valerie Mahaffey. The two have great chemistry and their relationship is a fascinating glimpse into what a relationship like this could be like. Their business is close to bankruptcy and this weekend could bring salvation in the form of Chanel clad activist and cross-dressing magazine publisher, Charlotte Price. Christian Clemenson plays Price, based on a real person, Virginia Prince, who lived the last 50 years of his life exclusively as a woman. She writes a magazine that they all adore and she comes to the retreat to garner support for her newly formed political “sorority” which seeks to win social acceptance for cross-dressing heterosexual men. You see, the goal of these particular men is not to be fabulous drag queens, but rather to fit in and pass. As one of the characters describes it, “as if you look like you just stood up from a bridge table.” Clemenson’s Charlotte is all class and manners which belie the prejudices that are just under the surface. The rest of the women are rounded out splendidly with James Snyder playing a self conscious newbie, Johnathan/Miranda, with giddy schoolgirl timidity and the portly, decorated war veteran, Albert/Bessie, played big, bawdy and beautiful by Raymond McAnally. There is everyone’s sweet, older aunty, “Terry” played with sincerity and depth by a fantastic Lawrence Pressman, the sassy, young & handsome Michael/Gloria played with a jaded cheekiness by Mark Jude. A complicated, seen it all Judge/Amy, is played with gruff intelligence by the wonderful John Vickery and Nike Doukas makes the most of the aggrieved daughter of one of the characters.
Halfway into the first act, one forgets that these are men on stage as they morph into an array of vibrant females engaging in playful banter as well as bold discussions of identity and societal pressures to conform. Faced with a decision to keep their precious Chevalier d’Eon lifestyle hidden or to legitimize by going public, the women find themselves in a prickly predicament, given the times, and one that is still provocative today.
“Casa Valentina” runs now through April 10 at Pasadena Playhouse. For tickets and info: PasadenaPlayhouse.org (626) 356-7529. 39 S. El Molino Avenue in Pasadena.