'Casa Valentina' opens at Bellingham Theatre Guild
March 28, 2023 at 5:05 a.m.
During a Sunday matinee on opening weekend of “Casa Valentina,” the audience at the Bellingham Theatre Guild learned a few things about transformation and acceptance. Additionally, theater-goers were reminded of some ugly truths about America's history.
Set in 1962, playwright and actor Harvey Fierstein's 2014 play about a resort in the Catskills of New York which catered exclusively to heterosexual men who enjoyed dressing and acting as women could easily have resulted in a farce. Instead, the story — which is based on real-life events — is an examination of the self-described “self-made women” and what they sacrifice in order to inhabit their alter egos. While it's true there are plenty of laughs along the way, it's not at the expense of the way anybody looks.
In the original script for “Casa Valentina,” Fierstein noted that when the characters were dressed as men, “they should over-emphasize their maleness, almost as if putting on the role. As women, however, they are fully at ease: breezy, fluid and relaxed.”
The actors must have taken Fierstein's and ace director Marla Bronstein's guidance to heart because on the whole those portraying the white-collar married men who find ways to escape their families for a few days in order to explore their femininity through cross-dressing are wholly convincing once they change clothes and put on makeup (in some cases, they are never seen out of drag).
I say “on the whole” because one of the characters, Jonathon (aka Miranda, depicted by an endearing Caleb Mcduff), is visiting the bungalow colony for the first time. He's only ever cross-dressed in private — except for the time his new wife walked in on him wearing her wedding dress and thought it was a practical joke — and when he makes his debut as Miranda he's a bundle of nerves. But as the rest of the women argue over who gets to give him a makeover, “he” transforms to “she” and commits to having a marvelous time.
The 14 hours “Casa Valentina” spans aren't a giant celebration, however. What's different about this weekend is that another new visitor, Charlotte (aka Isadore, played with smug self-satisfaction by Karl Ritter Smith) has the capacity to ruin resort owners Rita (Libby Liming, who is marvelous) and her husband George (the eponymous Valentina, nimbly inhabited by Tim Albertson). And speaking of their relationship, is it really as rosy as they'd have their visitors believe?
It's when the going gets rough that the cast truly shines. Matt Endrizzi, also known to Whatcom and Skagit county residents as longtime drag queen and activist Betty Desire, brings both gravitas and deadpan one-liners to the stage as the sorority's elder stateswoman, Terry (Theodore). When discussing whether to share their secret lives with the world — with the caveat that they must denounce homosexuality — it's Terry who speaks out the loudest against the idea.
Terry is joined in her sentiments by the youngest of the women, Gloria (aka Michael, a brash and confident Elijah Rakha-Sheketoff). Gloria is a teller of uncomfortable truths, whether it's related to Michael's prowess in bed or the way Valentina flirts with men when the two friends are out in public as their female counterparts.
The only other characters not yet mentioned are Bessie (Albert), whose big personality and wisecracking hides some uncomfortable truths; Amy (The Judge), who arrives for the weekend with a gun which is quickly replaced with a shiny frock; and Eleanor (Zoe Bronstein). As The Judge's daughter, she is the lone voice representing the cost of the lies the characters tell their families, and she is demonstrably angry. Although she's only onstage for a few minutes, she makes a big impact.
“Zoe can give such great inflection to a monologue!” my theater-minded date pointed out soon after “Casa Valentina" ended to thunderous applause. As someone not known to hold back when it comes to saying what she means, she opined the intermission could've come a little earlier in the action, and that, given the strong subject matter, if she were directing she would have the actors increase their speed and notch up the tension.
“On the whole, though, I think it's a brave work,” she said. “I appreciate the costumes and the set. Also, I like how they're not messing too much with their voices. It seems very natural. And there were a lot of different perspectives that they were putting into one. It was like all the angles from that time frame were there — including racism.”
In her director's note, Bronstein acknowledged some of the language commonly used in the 1960s can be problematic and that the text “can be challenging to hear by current standards.”
That said, it would be a shame to miss “Casa Valentina” because you're cautious of controversy. The play deals with a time in history when cross-dressers, transgender people, gay people and others who were deemed to be different had to hide their true selves, and getting a look at this subsection of humanity feels like a true treasure.
“Casa Valentina” shows Thursdays through Sundays until April 9 at the Bellingham Theatre Guild, 1600 H St. Tickets are $8–$18. Info: bellinghamtheatreguild.com.