“Casa Valentina” begins with a darkened stage. A light fades up, revealing a posh vanity and a large man seated behind it, carefully applying lipstick and rouge. He turns on the radio, and a poppy tune from the 1960s innocently floats out of the receiver.
This man is not a drag queen, nor is he transitioning into a woman. As he fiddles with a turban concealing his cropped, manly haircut, a woman wearing an apron sits in another room, presumably the kitchen, and considers what to cook for the half-dozen other men who will soon arrive.
One by one, they do, garment bags strewn over shoulders and boxes stuffed with wigs and makeup. They dress, cinching their corsets and zipping each other’s gowns, until finally settled, they begin their meeting.
Acclaimed playwright Harvey Fierstein had written several shows featuring men in women’s clothing (“Kinky Boots,” “La Cage aux Folles,” “Torch Song Trilogy”), but in his latest work, “Casa Valentina,” the men aren’t campy queens prancing around the stage in six-inch stilettos, in fact they’re not even gay, at least, there’s no reason to suspect so.
No, “Casa Valentina” turns a spotlight on a subculture that’s rarely discussed in decent society. These men are crossdressers, and they’ve left their families and flannel suits behind to embrace their inner women for a weekend in a bungalow tucked away in the Catskill mountains. The house, named Casa Valentina in the show (after the transvestite who owns property with his wife) is based on a real place named Casa Susanna that harbored closeted transvestites in the 1960s.
It’s the latest show to be staged by Queen City Theatre Company, a non-profit theatre group that bounced back from a hiatus last year, and it comes at a timely moment in Charlotte, N.C., when city leaders are debating whether to extend protections for transgender people in public spaces.
But are the men in “Casa Valentina” actually transgender?
“Well the show takes place in 1962, and the word ‘transgender’ didn’t come about until 1965,” said artistic director Glenn Griffin in an interview with qnotes. Some of the men are just crossdressers, plain and simple, but others say they yearn to live their lives as women full time.
The show’s conflict arises when one transvestite, Charlotte (Joe Rux), proposes the secret club go public as part of a national visibility campaign, potentially giving its members greater freedom to be themselves, while also putting their personal lives at risk.
One of the biggest challenges for director Glenn Griffin was finding the right men to play the shows multi-layered characters.
Two of the show’s cast members have performed in drag before, and while that meant they had valuable experience walking in heels and sitting in skirts, Griffin told them to throw the rest of the camp and schtick out the window.
“As a director, you have to say, you’re not doing drag,” Griffin said, “You are portraying transvestites, or you’re portraying what would later be termed as transgender.”
Neither did Griffin want his actors to play men pretending to be women. He wanted the characters to be at their most comfortable when dressed as women. If anything, the actors should play women who have to act as men.
Take the show’s title character, Valentina (Kristian Wedolowski), for example. When he first appears on stage, he’s dressed in male form. He goes by George.
“When you see him as George,” said Griffin, “he has this almost false bravado of being a man, because that’s what he’s playing. He’s playing a man. When he’s Valentina, he’s not playing anymore. That’s who he is.”
Long-time costume-designer Jamey Varnadore created the production’s wardrobe with authenticity in mind. Each dress is made from a real pattern from the 1960s and custom fit to the actor. Actual dresses from the period probably wouldn’t fit these blokes, certainly not Matthew Corbett, who plays the older dowager named Amy (and The Judge as a male), and in real life stands at six feet, five inches — that’s before he puts on heels.
Other cast members are Barbi Van Schaick as Rita, Berry Newkirk as Jonathon/Miranda, Matt Kenyon as Bessie, Steven Martin as Gloria, Christopher Jones as Terry and Amanda Liles as Eleanor.
Don’t expect over the top drag makeup or wigs that ascend into the fly system either. Griffin wanted everything on the stage to remain authentic to how things might have looked in the 1960s. He even dug up old photographs from Casa Susanna, the real life retreat Casa Valentina is based on, to ensure the production had an authentic look.
After all, this is a show that revolves around authenticity and what it means to be an authentic person. That’s why you don’t necessarily have to be a member of the LGBT or crossdressing community to enjoy it. Says actor Wedolowski, “It resonates with anyone who lives a life that is not fully the life that they want to live.”
The show runs for a limited engagement from Feb. 18-27, 8:00 pm., at the Duke Energy Theatre, 345 N. College St. Tickets range from $23-$25 and are available online.
For more information, visit queencitytheatre.com.