By Bob Evans
Stunning performances and a gender-bending story shocker propel Harvey Fierstein’s comedy/drama play, “Casa Valentina” to soaring heights as he explores lives of men who frequent a Catskill resort known for hosting straight men who escape their traditional confines, dress up in women’s attire, and unleash their inner goddesses for secluded weekends amongst friends and other cross dressers.
“Casa Valentina,” presented by Spinning Tree Theatre, opened Saturday night, Oct. 28 to a full house and standing ovation at the Just Off Broadway Theatre in Kansas City, Missouri. To provide insight into the original Catskill resort, Spinning Tree Theatre displayed a book of photos of the clientele who graced the actual resort in the 1960s. The Fierstein play took its idea from that collection, set the play in 1962, and developed a heart-rendering drama about the men who briefly fled from their masculinity to explore and enjoy their inner-female counterparts.
The story involved a couple who own and advertise their rustic resort as a getaway for men wanting to explore their feminine side with a sense of dignity and seclusion. Their lodge hosts men who regularly attend weekend soirees and show off their feminine style. On one particular weekend, a newbie, Jonathan, comes to the resort. His fears are soon calmed upon meeting Bessie who helps soothe his fears and encourages him to dress for the evening.
As he dresses, other guests arrive and the proprietors face a concern about a situation that may or may not lead to legal trouble–the postal inspector discovered pornographic photos addressed to George, the resort co-owner. Distributing pornography by mail brings federal charges, so the situation could explode at any moment and devastate their resort, their future, and the guests who frequent the resort.
The resort caters to straight men who lead normal lives and maintain a normal family life. The resort serves as their escape and opportunity to discretely explore their inner femininity by dressing as women. Exposure and publicity would destroy their secrecy and ruin their families and careers.
As the play progresses, the men (dressed as women) confront issues that concern them. With each encounter, Fierstein examines the hearts and souls of those men and women who have led double lives as they teeter between their two lifestyles.
Some of the more compelling encounters come between Jan Rogge and John Rensenhouse (Rita and George, the resort owners). Their marriage survived and thrived, but current situations and realizations threaten its survival. Their story of inner loneliness pulls at the heart.
In another situation of note, George/Valentina and Michael/Gloria get into a heated discussion that pits the two strong actors in a face to face exchange that equals some of the best chemistry seen in local theater this season. Similarly, an encounter with The Judge/Amy with Charlotte gives DeDe DeVille the chance to unleash her most dramatic and demonic character in recent years, and sparring with veteran actor Victor Raider-Wexler; the result is pure evil with a sweet but cruel smile.
While “Casa Valentina” showcased local actors as per the focus of Spinning Tree Theatre, two actors made their debut with the company, Joe Wyatt a seasoned Equity actor who recently relocated to Kansas City; and relative newcomer to the Kansas City theater scene, Zach Sudbury. Both display strong stage presence, good timing, good characterizations. Expect to see them in subsequent productions throughout the metro area.
Fierstein’s piece creates a strong ensemble piece with well-rounded characters who all move the play motion forward. Each character opens his/her heart to carefully shielded pains and uncertainty. As they change, the audience gains fuller understanding of their misunderstood lives.
The blockbuster cast, directed by Michael Grayman-Parkhurst and Nicole Marie Green create a magical chemistry in this two-act play. The cast is: John Rensenhouse as George/Valentina, Jan Rogge as Rita, Victor Raider-Wexler as The Judge/Amy, Joe Wyatt as Albert/Bessie, DeDe DeVille as Charlotte, Zach Sudbury as Jonathan/Miranda, Andy Perkins as Michael/Gloria, Kevin Fewell as Theodore/Terry, Claudia Copping a Eleanor.
The technical aspects of the show equal those of the casting and acting. The costumes stand out. The lighting is beautifully done. The makeup and hair design works well. The sound, which is sometimes a challenge in the JOB has been well balanced and tuned. All aspects of this production shine. No one will be disappointed with the technical pieces.
The production team for “Casa Valentina” is Nicole Jaja, lighting design; Eric Palmquist, scenic and properties design; Emily Stovall, costume design; Shanna Jones, makeup design, Jeff Eubank, original composition and sound design; Russell Bagwell-Schein, hair design, and Audra Viele, stage manager.
“Casa Valentina” continues at the Just Off Broadway Theatre. Remaining show dates and times are: Wed., Nov. 1 at 7:30 p.m.; Thurs., Nov. 2 at 7:30 p.m.; Fri., Nov. 3 at 7:30 p.m.; Sat., Nov. 4 at 7:30 p.m.; Sun., Nov. 5 at 2 p.m.; Wed., Nov. 8 at 7:30 p.m.; Thurs., Nov. 9 at 7:30 p.m.; Fri., Nov. 10 at 7:30 p.m.; Sat., Nov. 11 at 7:30 p.m.; Sun., Nov. 12 at 2 p.m. Tickets may be purchased through the Central Ticket Office at (816) 235-6222 or at the Spinning Tree Theatre website.
Tags: Spinning Tree Theatre, Just Off Broadway Theatre, Kansas City Performing Arts, Kansas City Theatre, Kansas City Arts & Entertainment