Monday, March 21, 2016



(L-R): Lawrence Pressman, Raymond McAnally, Mark Jude Sullivan, Christian Clemenson (standing), John Vickery and Robert Mammana (standing) in “Casa Valentina” at The Pasadena Playhouse. Photo by: Jim Cox Photography
Click on photo for full effect.

The Pasadena Playhouse ventures into the land of Broadway to a standing ovation.  The time: 1962. The Catskill Mountains, New York.  George (Robert Mammana) and his lovely wife, Rita (Valerie Mahaffey), have run this small resort for years, entertaining all sorts of folks who want to escape the City.  The twist is that George is a transvestite: a heterosexual male who enjoys life from time to time being a woman.  The foundation of this piece is a strong polemic and part drama as Valentina (George’s alter ego) hosts a group of fellow cross dressers.. well, sisters, as it were, for a weekend ‘en femme’ to relax and enjoy each others' company.  Harvey Fierstein’s voice is unmistakable throughout as the jokes roll comfortably from rotund Bessie (Raymond McAnally) who loves to quote Oscar Wilde and whose flamboyant approach to expressing “her” feminine side floats the scene beautifully in Act One.    

It’s an interesting approach for an out and expressive gay playwright to tackle the secret lives of men who are not gay but are condemned for their secret love of expressing their feminine side.  It’s the early sixties, seven years before the 1969 Stonewall Riots and homosexuals are still mostly in the closet. 

Enter Jonathan (James Snyder), a newcomer to the group.  He has discovered this safe haven for men in dresses and comes prepared to share the company of others.  He had felt that he was the ‘only one’ to enjoy being a girl and now he’s in the thick of all things feminine.  His first effort appearing as Miranda is rather embarrassing, but the ‘girls’ come to the rescue with the cry, “MAKEOVER!” With a tule underskirt, some makeup and hair adjustments Miranda is applauded as one of the group. 

Charlotte/Isadore (excellent Christian Clemenson) has just arrived from California and is a well known advocate for the rights of crossdressers.  She intends to recruit this group to be the first East Coast Chapter of her non-profit sorority. The fly in the ointment is that real names and addresses are required to take this monumental step.  Charlotte  declares that the non-profit will legitimize their ‘harmless hobby.’ With legitimization, this activity will then be embraced by the world. Yeh... right.

However, not everyone in this ‘sorority’ feels comfortable with the idea.  Charlotte, fashioned on Dr. Virginia Prince, a leading advocate for crossdressers for almost fifty years, is a zealot. Members of this casual gathering are not so sure they want to risk their reputations by ‘coming out.’  It is also very important to Charlotte that members sign a document that declares that they are strictly heterosexual!   The most senior attendee, Terry/Theodore (Laurence Pressman) reminds that men of their persuasion have always been welcomed at gay bars and various drag balls and other events.  Why, then, wouldn’t that be reason to at least embrace them as in return? 

In Act II alcohol is flowing and a cute pantomime number is performed by Valentina, Gloria (sassy Mark Jude Sullivan) and Bessie.  Charlotte’s efforts to encourage Valentina to bring the girls on board for the East Coast Chapter of the sorority turn dark and what has seemed to be a strong political effort to defuse the limbic reaction to men in dresses deteriorates quickly.  John Vickery (The Judge) brings a new element into the play which turns it on its ear.

A fine turn in a major plot twist by Nike Doukas as Eleanor mirrors ignorant fears and obliterates much of the basic good will established throughout the play.  

David Lee’s direction on an truly gorgeous 1960s era turntable set by Tom Buderwitz is smooth and steady.  Each character emerges as a human being in an individual way.  Someone points out that there are shades of gray to every issue and with this issue, each character is involved with his/her character’s activity in a very unique way.  This is no lampoon or fraternity skit. The sincerity of each of these men and his approach to becoming a woman if only temporarily is undeniable.  Charlotte in her denegration of the gay lifestyle asks if the others don’t find it disgusting and repulsive. Doth the lady protest too much?  Gloria, probably the person most in the middle gray area, refuses to exclude anyone because of sexual orientation. 
(L-R): Robert Mammana and Valerie Mahaffey  in “Casa Valentina” at The Pasadena Playhouse. Photo by: Jim Cox Photography
Click on photo for full effect.

It must be noted that the lovely Valerie Mahaffey as Valentina’s wife, Rita, delivers a very natural and heart rending performance as the sole (and soulful) woman in the midst of this collection of ‘girls.’  Her examination of who her husband, George, really is and where she stands with him and how she is related to his alter ego, Valentina, renders more questions than are answered in the play. 

Though not expressed specifically, the difference between these crossdressers and others in the slippery slope of transgender, transsexual, bisexual and other sub categories of gender exploration, it sounds as though the heterosexual male aspect of the activity is vital to those who practice it.  The plot ventures down a dark path which allows for a strong rebuttal to the fun the audience has had by the appearance of Nike Doukas whose contrary feelings to the whole scene are unflinching.

As with Fierstein’s successful outing with Torch Song Trilogy: three related one acts, one would hope that a further examination of this issue might be fodder for more exploration.  Rita, the understanding wife, is challenged as most folks would be as to how to relate to someone  (George/Valentina) who insists that they are totally sane and at the same time two very different people.  Bessie (Albert) declares that his feminine counterpart is the ideal wife.  “She” accepts all of Albert’s attention and gifts and care. He loves to be generous and attentive to her.

With the rise of LGBT awareness, even today with Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti establishing a Transgender Advisory Council for the City of Los Angeles, and as mentioned in my previous review of CLOUD NINE with gender switching as a major part of the plot, RuPaul’s One Hundredth Drag Race show and other gender issues crowding the front page, this activity which has been going on for a long, long time, being brought to light by a story over fifty years old must be at least worthy of understanding.    

CASA VALENTINA by Harvey Fierstein
The Pasadena Playhouse
39 S. El Molino Avenue
Pasadena, CA 91101
Through April 10, 2016
Tickets and Information:
626 356 7529 

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