As it leaves its longtime home in the Aaron DeRoy Theatre, the JET theatre company will be remembered for many things — not the least of which will be its season finale production, Harvey Fierstein’s Casa Valentina.
Fierstein, a Tony Award-winning playwright (Kinky Boots, Torch Song Trilogy and the libretto of La Cage Aux Folles) and actor (Hairspray’s eccentric Edna Turnblad) never shies away from a provocative subject or challenging role, and this show is no exception.
Casa Valentina takes place at a weekend resort where a group of men who live their “real” lives as successful businessmen with wives and children, come together to express their inner female selves, complete with dresses, wigs and full make-up. The resort is run by George/Valentina (Ron Williams) and his very understanding wife, Rita (Jean Lyle Lepard).
The play, directed by longtime JET staff member Harold Jurkiewicz, is based on an actual resort in the Catskills called “Casa Susanna,” a place that became a safe haven for heterosexual men who wanted to express their female identities from the 1950s through the ’70s.
The play is set during a weekend that includes, in addition to proprietors Rita and George/Valentina, the Judge/Amy (Arthur Beer), newcomer Jonathon/Miranda (David Gram), former Army sergeant Albert/Bessie (Joe Bailey), controversial magazine publisher Charlotte/Isadore (Greg Trzaskoma), business owner Michael/Gloria (Vince Kelley) and old-timer Theodore/Terry (Charles VanHoose). Kelly Komlen makes a brief appearance near the end as Judge/Amy’s daughter Eleanor.
The acting is superb, with every cast member embracing their male and female personas with absolute believability. Jurkiewicz’s direction keeps the pace moving, and the actors make good use of the stage space without getting in each other’s way.
The brassiest member of the group is Bessie, which, they explain, is “short for Alberta but worlds away from Albert.” In their female persona, this decorated former soldier who has a wife and children at home commands the stage in a curly red wig, a white bathrobe, fuzzy slippers, hot pink lips and blue eye shadow. And this is before they get dressed. Beer is also noteworthy as he struggles with reconciling his socially unacceptable inner desires with his highly public profile as a judge.
The set (by Elspeth Williams) and costumes (by Mary Copenhagen) are a sight to behold. The two-act play takes place entirely within the resort; the back portion of the stage is divided into guest rooms, and the front includes a dining room, kitchen and a small area where the guests perform a charming cabaret show. Flowered wallpaper adorns each room and an array of women’s clothing and lingerie hangs from clotheslines that span the back of the stage. The costumes, especially when the men transform themselves into women, are perfect: flowered frocks and shirtwaist dresses, complete with high heels, and, for publisher Isadore/Charlotte, a well-cut Chanel-style suit with the requisite sensible shoes.
While the play is a visual delight, the themes it explores go beyond the frilly dresses, lipstick and well-executed hairstyles. Ironically, one of the issues the guests discuss is whether or not to consider homosexuals as allies or enemies. A widely held and mistaken belief at the time was that men who enjoyed dressing in women’s clothing were themselves homosexuals. Consequently, some of the resort guests argue that they must renounce any affiliation in order to dissolve this myth. Others believe that homosexuals and men who wear female clothing are both persecuted groups and should support one another. Another fervent debate arises over whether the group should join a recently established sorority, which would require a public record of their membership and their identities.
While the play takes place several decades ago, the issues remain timely as today’s LGBTQ community continues to evolve amid misconceptions and bigotry. Kudos to the JET for shining a light on these important themes in an outstanding production that is entertaining, well-acted and heartfelt.
Note: Details will be announced soon regarding the JET’s new location for its upcoming 30th anniversary season.
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Casa Valentina plays through Sunday, June 17, at the Aaron DeRoy Theatre in the lower level of the Jewish Community Center in West Bloomfield. Performances are Thursday, June 7 at 2 pm; Fridays, June 1 and 15 at 8 pm; Saturdays, June 9 and 16 at 5 pm and 8:30 pm and Sundays, June 10 and 17 at 2 pm. Tickets range from $16-$44 and can be purchased by calling (248) 788-2900 or by visiting jettheatre.org.