My favorite question as an arts journalist is “Why now?” When Harvey Fierstein’s Casa Valentina first hit New York stages in 2014, the answer seemed clear. Across the country, states had started to legalize queer marriage left and right; it wasn’t a matter of if it would become the law of the land, but when. With the white weddings and registries, however, continued the question of assimilation: What do we lose when we insist we’re just like everyone else? Or, more importantly, whom do we lose?
This beautifully acted show from Pride Films and Plays, directed by Michael D. Graham, scratches at those questions through a historic lens. Placing us in 1962, and using a false hierarchy between “homosexuals” and cross-dressers—straight men who dress up as conventional women—Fierstein gathers a group at a Catskills resort established exclusively for the latter. For the emphatically straight, cisgender men, it’s an escape, an Eden where they “femmepersonate” in dresses and lipstick. They use she/her pronouns; they call each other by their chosen names. Some of their wives are in on the scheme, but most have families who choose to ignore the poorly kept secret.
But when one of the most prominent members of their community, Charlotte, arrives with a plot to decriminalize cross-dressing, they hit an impasse. Part of Charlotte’s plan involves formally denouncing homosexuality, which would wipe away any sense of “gray” space for the community. Prejudices are quickly revealed and schisms emerge.
In 2014, this was a cautionary tale about the shortcomings of queer legitimacy in what felt like a newly optimistic time. In 2019, it feels like a complete dismantling of the very notion of that legitimacy, an assertion that accepting the vastness of sex and gender will always be impossible within the confines of the fickle state. v