In 1962 when Casa Valentina takes place, the word crossdresser described, in this case, men who wore women’s clothes. By 1975, Dr. Frank N. Furter self-identified in song as a sweet, time warping transvestite in The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Our vocabulary has since evolved to include terms that are more accepting of gender fluidity. Hari Nef, the model and actress, identifies as a transgender woman. The contestants on RuPaul’s reality television show are purposeful drag queens.
The main difference between the old words and the new is that the meanings are now expansive rather than restrictive. Arguably, Dr. Furter could be called transgender, queer — or both (Laverne Cox, a transgender actress, will be playing the part in an upcoming remake). But that’s only if he/she wanted a label in the first place. In his exploration of that bygone era, Harvey Fierstein’s play is unexpectedly warm-hearted. Regardless of where the characters weigh in on the Kinsey scale, he holds a boundless sense of compassion for them, even as those 1962 restrictions cause varying degrees of harm.
George (Paul Rodrigues) and his wife Rita (Jennifer McGeorge) run a small resort in the Catskills. According to the brochure, it’s a safe haven for heterosexual men who crossdress to spend a relaxed weekend together without fear or judgment. George’s name when he’s dressed as a woman is Valentina. Rita met George when he came into her wig shop. Although she wouldn’t call herself put-upon, Rita subsumes her identity in order to accommodate George and his compulsion to become Valentina.
This is where Casa Valentina starts blurring definitions. When George removes his shirt and tie and trousers, he reveals a slip underneath and sighs with relief. Without saying it, George conveys the feeling that Valentina is his real self. George is simply the masculine drag construct he puts on in public. The staging here implies, but never states, that George is more than a crossdresser: he’s transgender.
After making up her face, putting on a wig and dress, Valentina stares at herself in the mirror. This gaze of extended self-love is meant to be compensatory for the infrequency of her visits, and narcissistic in the way that this transformation, to a great extent, excludes his wife. Rita is the most fully developed character in the play. In the program notes, Fierstein admits that in order to write Casa Valentina, “I had to get into the mind of a 1962 transvestite.” While he ably imagines their outer lives, it’s Rita’s stricken, beleaguered voice that Fierstein captures best. This may be due in part to Jennifer McGeorge’s terrific performance, as well as some uneven ones from the rest of the cast.
Those male guests arrive one by one at Casa Valentina for this escape from their everyday lives, most already dressed in their finery. This is one of the confusing omissions either in the script or this production. The play contends with the transformative power of changing gender. It’s a misstep not to see what that feels like for most of the characters, not to see the male become female, even if only briefly. Because they show up on stage as women, two of the main characters — Bessie and Charlotte — often read as bitchy members of a drag queen camp, not Fierstein’s intention to depict a “heterosexual transvestite.”
That isn’t to say that their performances aren’t amusing and spirited, they are both. Just to contrast approaches, Terry (Michael Moerman) shows up in a blue dress and Golden Girls poodle wig but keeps his vocal timbre unaffected. He may want to be coiffed like a woman but he’s also comfortable being what he is: a man in a strapless dinner gown. But, and this may be the point: the social experience of being in a dress and wig means something different for each man. Freedom from burdensome role-playing, the revelation of a hidden identity, or the simple pleasure of playing dress up in a pretty frock.
Casa Valentina answers several questions about this closeted community and what they were hoping for. Some wanted widespread acceptance; others companionship for a drink or a dance. Outsiders finding an appropriate language to categorize these men is ultimately irrelevant. Fierstein suggests that we tell their stories and then let them be whoever they wanted to be — men in heels or women at heart.
Casa Valentina, through Nov. 6, at New Conservatory Theatre Center, 25 Van Ness Ave., 415-861-8972.