Last night I went to the Teacher’s Club to see ‘Casa Valentina’ by Harvey Fierstein, which has been produced by the Acting Out group for its Irish premiere. Fierstein is the famed Tony Award winning writer and actor, who shot to fame with his play (and later film) Torch Song Trilogy about a young New York drag queen’s struggle to find love and family. I first encountered him onscreen as Uncle Frank in ‘Mrs Doubtfire’.
This latest play is a fictionalised retelling of the real life storyof Casa Susanna in the Catskills Mountains in New York State. This was a resort for cross-dressing men in the early 1960s. The bungalow camp was run by Tito / Susanna Valenti and his / her wife Marie, who also ran a wig store in town. They would host weekend parties for heterosexual men to find their ‘inner girl’, at a time when such activities could lead to arrest and ruin. Renamed for the play as Casa Valentina it tells the tale of George / Valentina and Rita, as they prepare for a weekend at the resort. The attendees are an assortment of characters from all walks of life. There’s a cat among the pigeons however in the form of Charlotte (Sean Denyer) who has plans to incorporate their secret sorority as an official group. This causes consternation among the members, many of whom are satisfied to compartmentalise their crossdressing separately from their daily lives. Trouble is afoot. Recognition of the group could lead to exposure of their identity.
It was an entertaining and thought provoking production (directed by Howard Lodge) of an excellent script about a forgotten world. The conflict and discrimination faced by these characters at such a hard, unforgiving time makes you understand their need for secrecy. And also their cruelty I guess. The insistence by Charlotte that homosexuals be excluded from the group is unfathomable from a 2019 perspective, but all too understandable at the time. These men all regarded themselves as heterosexual men with a secret – nowadays their identities might have evolved somewhat. The ensemble cast works really well together – with special mention to Seamus O’Neill as the bolshie Gloria; Rachel Fayne as the sainted Rita, and kudos to whoever designed the look for Terry (Shane Kavanagh) – it was like Judge Judy materialising before my very eyes. It is a captivating and funny look at a snapshot in time, of an era before liberation.
The show runs for another two nights at the Teacher’s Club. Recommended.