It’s Sunday night. I can write one review before work starts tomorrow. My options are: Kinky Boots, Briefs, or Casa Valentina (currently playing at the Southwark Playhouse). All feature men in dresses. But what gets the my time tonight? Casa Valentina, because even though I’m just a lowly blogger (and even though I had more fun at Kinky Boots), it needs me more.
Casa Valentina says it’s based on a true story, but the plot line still defies belief: in 1960s America, there were a group of men who used to travel to the Catskills to spend their holidays “en femme.” I had to look this up: it turns out the original was called Casa Susanna and was featured in a picture book you can find all over the internet (if you look). So it is real. But this is a dramatized version of what might have happened there. It starts out following one man arriving for his first weekend spent, with other people, dressed as a woman – and here you have a chance to see a real sisterhood among the various participants. But then a bigger story starts up, about money owed on the resort, one character’s desire to take the whole “sisterhood” mainstream (they had a magazine – this apparently was true), and a possible set up with the postal authorities for distribution of pornography. The stakes are raised, the arguments start, and Casa Valentina suddenly becomes a much more interesting play.
There’s a fair amount of wit and fine acting here (Gareth Snook as Charlotte was perfect in every moment), but to me the heart of the play is a debate on where this group sits with the rest of the world. There were laws in many states against transvestism, but Charlotte argues they can easily claim their privilege as heterosexual white men and rise above the hatred directed toward others … but can they, and should they? Watching a group who faced oppression argue about the ethics of oppression and the system of morality that held them down alongside many others was the highlight of my afternoon, and at one point the speechifying got so emotional that I wanted to stand up and clap when a character finally supported a vision that matched my own. It was so much more fully explored than the similar theme as treated in Kinky Boots – which is, after all, a musical comedy – and it elevated Casa Valentina right above the pool of mawkishness it could have slipped beneath and into an invigorating examination of the intersection of fantasy and politics.
The ending kind of collapsed on itself, but I can forgive that; Casa Valentina plumbed a rich vein of still valid debates, while leaving some of the deeper questions of the characters’ identities and evolutions unresolved and for us to pick through after the bows. Nice job, Southwark Playhouse: but please, if we’re going to buy into the characters, spend just a little more time prettying up those wigs – that dead cocker spaniel should never have come out from the turban.
(This review is for a preview performance that took place on Saturday, September 12, 2015. It continues through October 10th.)