Courage in the Catskills: Casa Valentina at the Provincetown Theater
Provincetown Theater’s 2023 season opening couldn’t be more electric… or more riveting. Both heart-affirming and heartbreaking, Casa Valentina is a singularly brilliant tour de force production of an amazing play.
It’s summertime in the Catskills in the mid-1960s. (The play is inspired by the real-life Chevalier d’Eon resort, aka “Casa Susanna.”) Middle-class families flee the heat of the city to frequent resorts in the borscht belt, but a small bungalow community has a rather different clientele: heterosexual men who dress as women and allow their alter egos to play out for a weekend of freedom. Fierstein’s play, though uproariously funny, eventually leads the situation into several crises: are the “girls” ready to stand up for their identities and go public? What is the connection between straight transvestites and gay ones? And what do people do when one of their personas takes over the other?
George/Valentina (Scott Cunningham) runs the resort with his wife, Rita (Laura Scribner). She loves him and supports his crossdressing, but wonders what place she really has in his life. When first arrival Albert/Bessie (the invariably and side-splittingly funny Ken Lockwood) confesses that, despite being married with children (and, indeed, being “a decorated war hero in a housecoat and turban”), the true soulmate Albert experiences is Bessie, Rita wonders if George might be feeling the same way about Valentina.
Enter Charlotte (William Mullin), a magazine editor with an agenda: she wants to give the group legitimacy by making it a legally recognized nonprofit. But when the “girls” learn that they’ll have to go public, the conversations take a darker turn: most have negotiated arrangements with their wives that would be jeopardized by publicity. And Charlotte’s homophobia (manifested in her insistence that the group is somehow better than gay men who cross-dress and needs to distance itself from the dreaded “homosexuals”) is concerning.
The conversations that ensue could well—shame on us—be taking place in 2023. (One of my favorite moments is when Michael/Gloria—played with elegance by Thom Markee—notes that she doesn’t care much for tapioca pudding, but that “your enjoyment of it does not diminish me.” A lesson our world has yet to learn.)
A further complication arises when Valentina is held liable for an envelope discovered by the postmaster containing gay pornography; she turns in distress to another one of the “girls,” the local gun-toting judge aka Amy (John Dennis Anderson), who may or may not know about the envelope’s contents—and challenges everyone’s perception of what their club means; his daughter Eleanor (Anne Stott) has her own clear ideas about what and who he is. The situation is further complicated by the arrival of an innocent newbie, Jonathan/Miranda (Dustin Ross), trying out her first weekend at the resort (and the competition over giving her a makeover is both intense and hilarious).
The large cast is rounded out by Paul E. Halley as Theodore/Terry (one would swear she looks like everyone’s aunt from those strangely colored ‘60s Christmas snapshots our parents all put into photo albums), who has perfected SNL’s Church Lady’s sniffing demeanor and animated facial expressions but applied them to a sympathetic character.
To say this cast is brilliant is missing the mark: every one of them is beyond superb. One has come to expect great ensemble work from the Provincetown Theater, but this may be the pinnacle—there isn’t a single misstep in the production. They deliver Fierstein’s series of one-liners (some borrowed from Oscar Wilde) at breakneck speed with assurance and, one would swear, delight.
“They know as much as they want,” one of the characters says. She’s referring to the families at home waiting for the husband/father to come home; but again, it works as well as it did nearly ten years ago when the play was written. For many people, knowing as much as they want to know is the only way to deal with the “other,” whether that person be a crossdresser, an immigrant, a woman. They know as much as they want to know.
And there’s a sense of inclusion, even in this admittedly unusual setting. In the midst of Charlotte’s anti-gay rants, Terry says, pensively, that gays were always more accepting than anybody else—a not-so-subtle support for the union version of interactions: we’re stronger together. (And when someone mentions gays wanting to join the club should they ever become public, Terry dismisses the concern: “They have a lot more interesting places than this to go,” she says.)
While it’s true that the ensemble as a whole is marvelous, I do have to single out Scott Cunningham. His transformation from a small, beige entity as George into the vivacious and glittering Valentina is remarkable, and he inhabits both personas with ease and elegance.
I don’t usually heap praise on the costumer—such an important but neglected part of people’s perceptions of the theatre—but I just have to say how exceptional these outfits are; brava to Carol Sherry for the dresses and wigs. It’s Mad Men with a twist; garments that women find constraining in our world were the pinnacle of female elegance in theirs, and Sherry captures them perfectly. And the range between the primness of Charlotte and Terry and the wild drama of Valentina and Amy in lace and sparkles is wonderful.
David Drake directed this production, and he hasn’t set a foot wrong. He was interviewed on Arts Week on WOMR and talked some about the play, the characters’ singular joys and challenges, the difficulties of staging such a large cast; and even after that it was impossible to appreciate the energy, the care, and the pathos that went into telling this story. Drake creates small plays out of each scene within the play, building tension and drama and keeping the audience on the edge of their seats.
My only criticism has to do with the playwriting rather than the performance; Fierstein goes for an easy melodramatic and anticlimactic ending after raising (though never answering, perhaps because there are no answers) such soul-searching questions.
It’s a small disappointment after such a tour de force performance, and can be easily ignored. It’s a brilliant evening that will make you laugh, perhaps cry, and definitely think.