Tuesday, October 27, 2015

SpeakEasy Stage Company Scores A Knockout Punch With "Casa Valentina" - A Must See!

Harvey Fierstein's play "Casa Valentina" played last season on Broadway, and SpeakEasy Stage Company has chosen to build its 2015-2016 season around this powerful piece.  The writing is simply brilliant - with Fierstein's signature zingers hitting like rogue waves from a calm sea. The story, based on real people and incidents from 50 years ago, deals with the complexities of gender identity among a group of heterosexual cross-dressers who have found comfort in retreating to a safe haven in the Catskills to spend weekends as their feminine alter egos.  The writing and acting are nuanced, multi-layered and extraordinarily complex.  It turns out that the struggles of men back in the McCarthy era were not much different from issues being discussed today - except for the glaring fact that in the 1950s and 1960s one could be arrested for dressing as a woman.

An oft repeated dictum of playwriting and screenwriting is that if you show a gun in the opening scene, someone had better have fired that gun by the time the last scene rolls around.  The gun in this play is a vague reference to George having been questioned by a postal inspector about the contents of a mysterious manila envelope that has been mailed to him from Vermont. That gun is really a ticking time bomb, and that bomb finally explodes in Act II with several of the characters being wounded by the shrapnel.

It is a tribute to Mr. Fierstein's deft writing ability that the dialogue is at times hilarious without being campy, and heart-rending without being maudlin.  Each character has complex reasons for presenting themselves to the world and to one another as they do.  The action of the play veers suddenly in a political direction, examining the fault lines that exist even with the sorority of cross-dressing men with regard to whether they will accept homosexual cross-dressers as kindred spirits or reject them as loathsome sodomites.  The playwright offers no easy answers or facile solutions.

Robert Saoud, Will McGarrahan,
Sean McQuirk, Greg Maraio,
Kerry A. Dowling, Eddie Shields
"Casa Valentina"
SpeakEasy Stage Company
Through November 28th
Photo by Glenn Perry Photography.

Director Scott Edmiston wrings from this extraordinary ensemble cast memorable performances, each of which is deserving of mention.

  • Kerry A. Dowling is Rita, married to George/Valentina.  Together they operate the struggling Catskill retreat.  On the surface, she seems to be a complacent and accepting enabler of her husband's predilections, but previously buried doubts begin to surface as the play develops. Rita is the house mother of this sorority, offering acceptance and hospitality while trying to figure out where she fits in this territory for which there is no map to guide her steps.  Ms. Dowling is strong in this role.
  • Greg Maraio is Jonathon/Miranda, a neophyte who is sneaking away from his wife for his first foray into allowing Miranda to emerge.  He is scared and reticent.  The makeover that the girls offer Miranda goes deeper than a new wig and prosthetic curves.  Mr. Maraio is the very picture of insecurity evolving into euphoria and then crashing back into despair.  It is a strong arc for the characters, and this actor leads the audience through a clear understanding of that arc.
  • Robert Saoud is ridiculously good as Bessie, a decorated war hero who dresses like Norma Desmond.  Bessie wields Oscar Wilde quotations like a rapier, dropping insults and bon mots with a flick of her wrist and of her tongue.  It is a bravura performance.
  • Thomas Derrah is George/Valentina.  Mr. Derrah is no stranger to cross-dressing characters, having almost stolen the show in last season's "Necessary Monsters."  It was George's dream to open the retreat and to create the East Coast branch of a national sorority of heterosexual cross-dressers.  At a crucial moment, when Rita demands that he tell her what he really wants, his cri de coeur pierces the air in the theater as he screams: "I just want to be normal."  It is the kind of nuanced performance we have come to expect from this gifted actor.
  • Will McGarrahan is Charlotte, the doyenne of the Sorority, who has flow in from the West Coast to get the women to sign statements that they will not allow homosexuals to be part of their group.  In a duel between ambition and generosity in her soul, generosity is eclipsed, and Charlotte's political agenda and vendettas reveal themselves in a stunning tete-a-tete with the Judge/Amy.
  • Eddie Shields is stunningly beautiful as Gloria.  She tries to smooth over differences within the group, helps to make Miranda feel more comfortable, and eventually digs in her high heels and stands up to the bigotry of Charlotte and to Valentina's acquiescence to Charlotte's vitriol. Mr. Shields plays this role with subtlety and grace.
  • Sean McGuirk is Terry, blessed with one of the ugliest wigs in the history of stage craft, and sporting horn-rimmed glasses to boot.  She reminded me of my frumpy Old Maid school teacher great aunt Lib.  Terry keeps a low profile, but is a tower of strength when Amy needs help.
  • Timothy Crowe is the Judge/Amy.  His role as elder statesman among the group is threatened when Charlotte tosses the ticking time bomb into Amy's quaking lap.  The crisis sends Amy to the hospital and everyone else running for cover.
  • Deb Martin as Eleanor enters the play late in the game.  She is the Judge's daughter, and she embodies the hurt and angry families of these men, not able to understand why they would be so selfish as to put themselves, their families and their careers at risk just to feel the pleasure of donning women's clothing.
Will McGarrahan, Sean McQuirk, ,
Robert Saoud, Thomas Derrah,Eddie Shields
"Casa Valentina"
SpeakEasy Stage Company
Through November 28th
Photo by Glenn Perry Photography.

Mr. Fierstein offers no solutions, but he does hold a mirror up to each of us to consider the complexities of our own identities and struggles and inner hidden desires.  This is a play that demands that one pay attention to each character, and insists that we think about what we have seen and felt as lives are laid bare before us. The telling of this story is helped immensely by the brilliant Set designed by Janie E. Howland, Costumes by Gail Astrid Buckley, Lighting by Karen Perlow and Sound and Original Music by Dewey Dellay.

Will McGarrahan, Eddie Shields
Sean McQuirk, 
Kerry A. Dowling, Thomas Derrah,"Casa Valentina"
SpeakEasy Stage Company
Through November 28th
Photo by Glenn Perry Photography

This play will run at the BCA Calderwood Pavilion through November 28th.  Do not miss it.



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