Clothes Make the Man
‘Casa Valentina,’ Fierstein’s Play About ’60s Cross-Dressers
by Patrick Healy
April 10, 2004
view article online
Reed Birney and Patrick Page, actors in Harvey Fierstein’s new Broadway play “Casa Valentina,” learn the art of cross-dressing.
Before rehearsals began for the new Broadway play “Casa Valentina,” the seven men in the cast were asked to come to work a few days early. They arrived to find a huge table covered with ladies’ wigs in ’60s-era hairdos — flips, bobs, French twists. Nearby was a long rack of colorful house dresses and white slips and brassieres. Yet no one made a move. The actors shared small talk, sipped coffee, checked their smartphones and looked around as if the room were empty.
If this was just another Broadway romp starring men in drag — another “Kinky Boots,” another “Hedwig and the Angry Inch,” another “Twelfth Night” — the mood might have been lighter: Boas, corsets and high heels are fun, familiar staples of theater. But “Casa Valentina” is about a subculture rarely seen onstage — cross-dressers — and mixes masculinity and femininity in ways that daunted the actors at first, and may do the same to audiences. The play, now in previews, is based on a real Catskills resort where husbands and fathers went in the 1960s to dress and act as women. These were white-collar professionals hobbling in heels, not drag queens sashaying in stilettos; men expressing their femininity without compromising their maleness.
As the actors stood still that first afternoon together, the play’s author, Harvey Fierstein, decided they wouldn’t become a close-knit group — of cross-dressers or of cast mates — without some help.
“So I went over and I started putting these wigs on,” said Mr. Fierstein, a Tony Award winner who previously brought drag to Broadway in “Torch Song Trilogy,” “La Cage Aux
Folles” and “Kinky Boots,” and won a Tony in a dress himself for “Hairspray.” “I was like: ‘Oh, this is the wrong color for me. Here John, you try that one.’ ”
Soon 84-year-old John Cullum was putting on a blond bob. Patrick Page was shimmying his muscular frame into a slip. Gabriel Ebert and Nick Westrate, acquaintances at the Juilliard School not long ago, were comparing fabrics. And Reed Birney popped into an adjoining room to try on mascara and blush.
By the end of the “two-day transvestite boot camp,” as the play’s director, Joe Mantello, called it, the men were zipping up one another’s clothes and offering makeup tips.
“Your lipstick was such a disaster,” Mr. Westrate reminded Mr. Ebert during a recent interview with the seven actors.
Mr. Ebert hung his head in mock shame. “I’m not very good at turning my moneymaker into a lady’s,” he admitted.
“I think we started getting the campiness out of our system that weekend,” Mr. Ebert added, “because every time we got silly, we remembered who these characters were: men who had a real need to wear women’s clothing. And we started bonding, because, look, none of us have done something like this before.”
Mr. Ebert wasn’t talking about dressing like women. A couple of the actors had for other roles, and none were fazed by the idea. The challenge in “Casa Valentina” is to create authentic portraits of the complicated men under the makeup. The boot camp was only a start. Mr. Page’s character, for instance, a court stenographer named George, arrives at the resort in a suit and tie and plants a kiss on his wife, Rita (played by Mare Winningham), and then asks whether she has combed out the wig for his femme persona, Valentina, which he will soon become. Continue reading the main story
For the play to succeed, Mr. Page said, conversations like these need to come across as unremarkable — normal — to audiences, and George’s heterosexuality can never be in doubt. (Most cross-dressers are straight, and sexuality is a key theme. The play, which opens on April 23, was developed by a team of commercial producers but is being mounted by the nonprofit Manhattan Theater Club.)
To make such scenes feel genuine, Mr. Page and the other actors relied on one another for confidence as they experimented — sometimes successfully, sometimes not — with their voices and body language. In doing so, the cast members, most of whom were not friends before rehearsals began, became their own sort of sisterhood.
“Something that really helped me become George-slash-Valentina was going down to the deli with Gabe and ordering lunch in my dress,” Mr. Page said during the group interview with the men in the cast. (In addition to Ms. Winningham, Lisa Emery has a small but crucial role.)
“I grew more comfortable using my normal voice to say something like, ‘Can you give me a half-pound of roast beef?’ because I found that nobody cared,” said Mr. Page, who has one of the deepest voices on Broadway — and who tried a higher, more feminine pitch before deciding it sounded arch. “At the deli, I knew I was a guy, but I felt like a girl. People opened the door for me. Gabe was way more polite to me than when I’m dressed as a man. I didn’t feel horrible about my voice. Now, I realize this is New York City, where many kinds of people are accepted. But still, I felt safe, and I felt free.”
Or, as one character in the play says of the Catskills resort, “Here, we breathe.”
Such was the appeal of the real-life resort, originally called the Chevalier d’Eon — named after a legendary 18th-century cross-dresser and spy — and then Casa Susanna after one of its proprietors, otherwise known as Tito Valenti. (It is called Casa Valentina in the play.)
Casa Susanna, a rickety farmhouse with nearby cabins for guests, existed into the 1970s, then came to some prominence a decade ago when a furniture dealer, visiting the 26th Street flea market in Manhattan, discovered a trove of photographs of guests playing cards and eating dinner in their women’s wear. After the photos were published as a book in 2005, Mr. Fierstein — who came of age as an actor and writer among drag performers in the 1970s — was encouraged by theater producers to bring the story of Casa Susanna to the stage.
While George and Rita are based on the resort’s actual proprietors, most of the other characters are composites of cross-dressers who visited that Catskills resort near Hunter, N.Y. — including the plump, jovial Bessie, a character that Mr. Fierstein wrote for himself. (He opted to stick to the role of playwright for this spring’s world premiere; Tom McGowan is playing Bessie on Broadway.)
The play takes place on a spring weekend when Mr. Birney’s character, a politically crusading cross-dresser, visits the resort to urge the guests to come out as part of a publicly recognized national organization. Not only is their privacy zone at risk, but the organization also would have a rule — a ban on gay members — that divides the men.
“Fifty years from now, when homosexuals are still scuttling about as the back-alley vermin of society, cross-dressing will be as everyday as cigarette smoking,” Mr. Birney’s character says. “And transvestites everywhere will celebrate those in this room for making the hard decisions that led to their liberation.”
The fierce arguments over the homosexuality ban were among several moments where Mr. Mantello, the director, urged the actors to show the alpha-male sides of their characters.
“Joe would sometimes stop scenes and say: ‘It’s starting to feel like drag queens. They’re just guys. They’re guys,’ ” Mr. Page recalled.
Mr. Ebert added, “It’s been really hard to rehearse sometimes, because if you try to disappear into the dress or the wig, it gets in the way of playing men.”
Mr. Westrate was about to speak, but then let Mr. Cullum go first, one of several moments when the other actors deferred to him, just as their characters sometimes do to his femme persona, the 80-something Terry.
“It’s a more complicated acting job than being a woman,” Mr. Cullum said. “They have this tremendous need to change clothes, and we need to bring that to life.”
Mr. Westrate said, “And it makes you wonder about your own authentic self.” Asked to describe his true nature, he seized up. “I can’t. It’s too complicated. Putting it into words is too complicated.”
Mr. Mantello said that from the boot camp through the start of preview performances, he wanted the actors “to simply be” in their costumes and allow behaviors to surface naturally. He and Mr. Fierstein also invited a couple of cross-dressers to talk about their lives with cast members and others involved in the play.
“One person I spoke to said: ‘When I have my boy clothes on, I feel like I’m at a party full of strangers, and there’s great effort that goes into putting my best self forward. And when I put on my women’s clothing, it’s like walking into another room, and my best friend is sitting there, and I can breathe,’ ” Mr. Mantello said. “There’s a certain poignancy in a transformation that feels cellular.”
If the guests at Casa Valentina love looking in the mirror at their femme selves, some of the actors have struggled with it. Mr. Birney recalled having a hard time making peace with how he looked as a woman.
“I was heartbroken,” he said. “I asked the makeup artist, ‘Can you make me prettier?’ ”
Mr. McGowan and the seventh man in the play, Larry Pine, said they had to reckon with their sagging middle-aged bodies, and the girdles and corsets used in the play.
“I look in the mirror, and I see a hideous woman, absolutely hideous,” Mr. Pine said. Asked if that hurt, he replied, “Yeah.”
“My performance has been very hard to achieve, and to be honest I’m not there yet,” Mr. Pine added of his role, a by-the-book judge who spends most weekends at the resort away from his family. “There’s a certain femaleness in the feelings, in ways of being able to express yourself without punching someone. I have to cry. I have to face losing my paradise. I just haven’t been brave enough to really go there yet, but these guys are helping.”
Some actors found the idea of playing ’60s-era cross-dressers so challenging that they passed on the script, Mr. Fierstein said. Others begged off because they thought the roles might hurt their careers, he added. Mr. Fierstein declined to name names.
For his part, Mr. Mantello said, “I can’t ascribe motives for why someone passes on material.”
Among those eager to join the cast was Mr. Cullum, who said he signed on before even reading the script.
“I thought, ‘This is Harvey’s play, it’ll be fun,’ and then I read it and thought, ‘What in the world is this?’ ” said Mr. Cullum, a two-time Tony winner. “I thought transvestites were female performers, but they’re not. These are actual guys who feel real empathy and anguish. Whether or not we can make it work — whether we can get the audience to see these men as real human beings, not caricatures — well, I don’t know. I hope so.”