‘Casa Valentina’ is a Fascinating and Heart-Wrenching look into LGBTQ History

Casa Valentina takes place in a small resort hotel in the Catskills, a location based off a real historical place called Casa Susanna — which, in the 50’s and 60’s, became a sort of haven for both trans women and cross-dressing men. The hotel’s clientele consisted largely of middle-class white-collar workers who lived as married, heterosexual men for most of the week, but came to Casa Susanna on the weekends to put on women’s clothing, wigs, and makeup, and simply live as women for a short time before returning to their daily lives. Casa Valentina, which was written by Harvey Fierstein and debuted on Broadway in 2014, serves as an only slightly fictionalized glimpse of an oft-forgotten pocket of LGBT history — and this production in particular tackles the play’s issues with confidence and resolve that make the already relevant themes entrancingly urgent.

The set, from designer Evan Frank, has a warm, unique spirit and sets the tone right away: the raised platforms that make up different areas of the hotel are decorated in colors up and down the rainbow spectrum, but still cohere into a mellow, atmosphere. The lights from Shelbi Arndt accentuate this welcoming feeling; lots of soft oranges, reds, and yellows that complement the set quite well.

The costume, wig, and makeup design from Robert Eric-West is downright inspired. The characters describe themselves as “self-made women,” and you can see the copious attention to detail in everything they wear. Besides all the delightful 1960’s fashion on display, these characters are very clearly expressing their personalities through their clothes and makeup in a way that they simply can’t in the outside world, and that shines through in their meticulous and styled appearances.

As the play opens, we are introduced quickly to Miranda (played with a lovely nervous pathos by Micah Kronlokken), a newcomer to the resort who arrives in male dress, and is quickly welcomed and affirmed by the other women. Soon after we meet Rita (played with warmth and charm by Nicholia Q. Aguirre), the only cis woman at the hotel, and the wife of the proprietor Richard, who after the first few scenes transforms swiftly into Valentina (Patrick Byrnes), the effective matriarch of the group.

The direction from Michael D. Graham is fiery and urgent, keeping things moving quickly while still giving attention and care to the quiet, intimate moments that make these characters pop. What Fierstein does so well with the dialogue, besides giving each character a unique wit and believable personality, is capture how Americans in the 1960’s talked about gender and sexuality in vastly different ways than we do today. Certainly if we met these characters today, we they might identify themselves as ‘trans women’ — but these characters have only the language of straight, white, middle-class America to describe themselves, as much of the LGBT vocabulary we use today simply hadn’t been invented yet. One character, Bessie (played hilariously by Michael Hagedorn), describes her feeling about her identity in a way that stuck with me: “I think of being a boy as my day job!”

It’s an important reminder that we can’t always apply the terms we use now to people in the past — rather, it’s more important to try and understand how they saw themselves, and how those modes of thinking eventually morphed into our modern ones.

And in fact, that slow transformation from then to now is what gives the play its meaty central conflict. Charlotte (Danne W. Taylor), an older and respected member of the group who publishes a magazine about life at the hotel, wants to establish her publication as an official nonprofit organization. But in order to do that, the participating women must sign government documents attesting, among other things, that they are not homosexual, or engaging in homosexual acts. The arguments that ensue from this setup are fascinating, dynamic, and painful to watch. The homophobia on display from some characters is often angering: Charlotte in particular engages in the fallacy of thinking that while your oppressed group is valid and misunderstood, that other oppressed group is in fact inhuman and depraved. It’s a potent example of one of the most disturbing side-effects of societal bigotry; pitting groups at the bottom against each other, thereby preventing them from focusing on their true enemy, the groups at the top enforcing the current system.

Societal progress is rarely linear, and ironically, the frustratingly slow nature of progress brings me to my biggest criticism of the show — my only quibble, to be fair, but a significant one. The performances of the cast are excellent across the board, but upon examination of the program and some googling, it seems to me that this cast of “self-made women” characters consists almost entirely of cis men. Now, this isn’t necessarily inaccurate to the time period; many clients at Casa Susanna never claimed to be transgender, instead identifying as male transvestites or cross-dressers. However, plenty of others continued cross-dressing for the rest of their lives — some in secret, some publicly, and some even publicly identifying as transgender.

So wouldn’t it have been more interesting, more dynamic, more inclusive of the very community this play is ostensibly going to bat for, to center some trans women in the casting process and make that part of the conversation? Pride Films and Plays is a theater company that claims to tell a wide variety of queer stories, yet has had a history of focusing mostly on white, cis, gay men.

And keep in mind, this is coming from someone who really liked the play. It’s the rare historical piece that feels grippingly necessary in today’s political climate. So in the grand scheme of things, perhaps it’s fitting that the problematic casting choices left me a bit cold. It’s a biting reminder that while we have come a long, long way since 1962, it was not an easy road by a long shot, and we’re simply not as far down the road as we think we are. Progress isn’t linear, but more importantly, it isn’t inevitable either. Progress is fought for, tooth and nail — and what this show does so beautifully is make us feel, deep in our bones, how slow, messy, painful, and hard-won that progress can be.

If you want to read more about the fascinating history behind Casa Valentina, I highly recommend this article about the original Broadway production.

Casa Valentina produced by Pride Films and Plays runs at The Broadway at Pride Arts Center through September 29th.

Rita: Nicolia Q. Aguirre
Jonathan / Miranda: Micah Kronlokken
Bessie: Michael Hagedorn
George / Valentina: Patrick Byrnes
Gloria: Josh Marshall
Charlotte: Danne W. Taylor
Terry: Kingsley Day
The Judge / Amy: Robert Koon
Eleanor: BethAnn Smukowski
u/s Gloria, Miranda: Casey Coppess
u/s Rita, Eleanor: Jessica Goforth
u/s Valentina: Scott Patrick Sawa
u/s Terry, Amy: Jimmy Binns

Director: Michael D. Graham
Assistant Director / Movement Coordinator: Claire Hart Proepper
Scenic Design: Evan Frank
Lighting Design: Shelbi Arndt
Costume / Wig / Makeup Design: Robert-Eric West
Props Design: Sandra Leander
Stage Manager: Michael Starcher
Dramaturg: Jeffrey Geddes
Photography: Cody Jolly Photography

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