Inspired by actual events, Casa Valentina takes place in a Catskill Mountain country resort in 1962. Back then men took a two-hour drive to escape the summer heat. But the gentlemen in this play are looking to escape something else entirely: being men. For them Casa Valentina is a paradise – somewhere they can temporarily leave their families behind and inhabit their chosen female alter egos in a safe and discreet way. But given the opportunity to share their secret lives with the world, the members of this sorority have to decide whether the freedom gained by openness is worth the risk of personal ruin.
Infused with Fierstein’s trademark wit and with a soundtrack to rival Dirty Dancing, this moving, insightful and delightfully entertaining play offers a glimpse into the lives of “self-made women” as they search for acceptance and happiness in their very own Garden of Eden.
“I saw Casa Valentina last summer at the Southwark Playhouse and absolutely loved it. I was immersed in a world I had very little knowledge of and knowing that the play was based on real events made watching the show all the more poignant. Gender-identity and the transgender movement are in the public eye now more than ever thanks to individuals and celebrities like Kaitlin Jenner and Kellie Maloney ‘going public’ and sharing their stories in the media. I thought this would be an opportune time to explore these topics and look at how attitudes have changed in 50 years.
Casa Valentina introduces a group of unforgettable characters all with their own very different stories and stances. I think this is a great chance and an exciting challenge for our male actors (if they have never acted a transgender role before!) I am hoping that our members, regular and new, will rise to this challenge – it will certainly be a lot of fun! Overall what appealed to me most was that it was funny. I love acting in comedies so it was only natural that I would be drawn to a comedic play. And like all the best comedies (I think) there are tones of tragedy and heartache, enriching the characters so that you care about them and their story, and I didn’t want CTW to miss out!”
Directed by Rebecca Segeth
Cast: Rita - Rachel Curren Jonathon/Miranda - Jesse James Lamb Albert/Bessie - Dave Hawkes George/Valentina - Colin Smith Isadore/Charlotte - Barry Taylor Michael/Gloria - Ian Willingham Theodore/Terry - Terry Cramphorn The Judge/Amy - Robin Winder Eleanor - Catherine Kenton
Harvey Fierstein. Kinky Boots, Cage aux Folles, and, surely his finest hour, Torch Song Trilogy, memorably done on this stage back in 2001.
Casa Valentina is a newer piece, though it does revisit those favourite Fierstein themes. Based on the legendary Casa Susanna, it takes us back to the days – the early Sixties – when cross-dressing was still a crime in many US states, and a weekend retreat resort in the Catskills was a dream come true for these “self-made women”. The dream turns to nightmare after the interval, when politics takes over from prosthetics, and callow newbie “Miranda” [an excellent Jesse James Lamb] flees back to the closet.
Rebecca Segeth’s production has an evocative period set, on two levels, carefully lit [Jack Hathaway]. And a very strong cast, beautifully turned out in their femme frocks.
Colin Smith is “Valentina”, facing the uncertain future of his guest-house, supported by his wife, the only GG [genuine girl] in residence. This play is the story of their marriage, too, and the final moments are almost unbearably poignant: George sheds his masculine skin to the Everlys’ Let It Be Me, as Rita [touchingly played by Rachel Curren] stands confused and alone on the stage above him.
There is much fun and silliness too – the Wildean contributions of the outrageous “Bessie” [Dave Hawkes], and the Sugar Time routine, where the faces of the wallflowers tell their own story: there’s Terry Cramphorn’s veteran Theodore, who once found refuge in gay bars, listening to Ian Willingham’s Michael, who invited the new boy, and whose put-down of “Charlotte” is one of several powerful monologues in the piece – “Bessie”’s uncharacteristically melancholy musings on his marriage are another.
The darker ending is down largely to Barry Taylor’s “Charlotte”, a determined activist who will stop at nothing to sign Valentina’s guests up to her Sorority. The scene between Taylor and Peter Jeary’s Judge (Jeary stepping into “Amy”’s size 10s at a week’s notice) is a dramatic masterpiece, and sets the tone for the end of the play, where an icy appearance by the Judge’s unsympathetic daughter [Catherine Kenton] reminds us of just how different attitudes were half a century ago.
A superb production of a fascinating piece – a fine note on which to end a successful season for CTW.
Reviewed by Michael Gray
Casa Valentina by Harvey Flerstein
Chelmsford Theatre Workshop
Tuesday 25th July 2017
The open set on arrival gave me the opportunity to give consideration to the thought and level of detail that had gone into the set and dressing for this piece. Although there was a lot of furniture on the stage, it was all utilised throughout the piece, and the use of the lower level for alternative space at the house functioned effectively. The lighting worked well for the production and enhanced the piece; complimented by the sound throughout. The costumes were all suitable for the setting and time, and helped to enhance the character transitions.
I really felt for Rita, played by Rachel Curren, and the conflict she was feeling between her relationship with George and Valentina, played by Colin Smith. Rachel really made us understand the challenges that Rita was facing. Colin gave a fantastic performance as the strong Valentina, fighting to create a place for his friends to feel safe but also torn by his need to please Charlotte. Barry Taylor gave a strong performance as Isadore/Charlotte, he was suitably confident in the feminine role and was appropriately dislikeable in his manipulative ways. Dave Hawkes had a wonderful presence on stage, and with such good comic timing was perfect for the role of Albert/Bessie. Jesse James Lamb gave us such a vulnerable Jonathon/Miranda. He looked the part throughout, and I felt belief for the struggle his character was facing and the steps that he was taking in his life. Ian Willingham as Michael/Gloria and Terry Cramphorn as Theodore/Terry both played their roles with confidence and ease. A particular ‘well done’ to Peter Jeary for stepping in at short notice for the role of The Judge/Amy.
There was lots of attention to detail from all performers, and I was pleased to see clear and definite changes from the men into their female counterparts. All the cast members gave very natural performances particularly when they supported Jonathan in his transition to Miranda. The background of the ladies was portrayed sensitively and in keeping with the characters throughout. There were many heart-warming moments, and the struggle that they all faced every day battling, both inside and out, was sensitively handled. It was a tough job for Catherine Kenton as Eleanor, coming into the action cold, but she delivered her feelings and thoughts well. You could feel the hurt, as well as the anger throughout her conversation with George and Rita. There is plenty of silliness throughout the piece, but with a serious message running throughout which I really liked.
Overall a very accomplished performance from the cast with good direction from Rebecca Segeth, assisted by Jenny Ormrod. I didn’t know anything about Casa Valentina beforehand but I left feeling much more knowledgeable and enjoyed the experience of watching a fantastic show performed by very competent actors, and with a tear in my eye (for all the right reasons!).
Reviewed by Alexandra Berriman