From left, Tom Reilly, Tim Huls, Michael Moerman, Matt Weimer, Max Hersey and Paul Rodrigues appear in Harvey Fierstein’s “Casa Valentina” at New Conservatory Theatre Center. (Courtesy Lois Tema)

Cross-dressers take spotlight in ‘Casa Valentina’

The clothes in New Conservatory Theatre Center’s regional premiere of Harvey Fierstein’s 2014 “Casa Valentina” are to die for — something of which its transvestite characters would be very proud.

The heterosexual men who get together for a highly anticipated weekend at a Catskills resort — strictly for the purpose of feeling comfortable together wearing womens’ clothes, shoes, hair and makeup — look swell in the floral summer prints and other early 1960s-era dresses (excellent costumes by Keri Fitch, wigs by David Carver-Ford) in the funny, thought-provoking show directed with humor and sensitivity by Becca Wolff.

Based on a real Catskills enclave called Casa Susanna (photos of its guests are on view in a book in the lobby), “Casa Valentina” is an eye-opening, engaging glimpse into the lives, fears, insecurities and struggles of this little-known population of cross-dressers who aren’t gay and aren’t drag queens.

It begins when insecure first-timer Jonathan (Max Hersey) arrives, in men’s clothes, and is greeted by the proprietor’s easygoing wife Rita (Jennifer McGeorge), who reassures him things will be all right. He meets the charming Bessie (Jeffrey Hoffman) wearing a turban and dressing gown, quoting Oscar Wilde and offering him a nightie to sleep in as his alter ego Miranda.

Rita’s husband George (Paul Rodrigues), unsettled, comes home from being questioned by the postmaster about a packet of explicit pictures sent to the resort, which is in financial trouble.

He’s calmed as Rita willingly and pleasantly helps him become Valentina.

Another pillar of support for the weekend, Valentina hopes, is Charlotte (Matt Weimer), a civil rights activist of sorts who has come 3,000 miles in hopes of getting the weekenders to join a “sorority” of strictly heterosexual cross-dressers.

The “girls” are skeptical of Charlotte’s proposal, particularly the judge (Tom Reilly) a mature community member (whose transformation from a hunter to Amy happens onstage), Terry (Michael Moerman), another senior who has friends in the gay community, and the younger, strident Gloria (Tim Huls).

While their heated discussions about staying private versus going public, and varied associated gender identity issues, including sexuality, are interesting, Fierstein (Tony Award-winning gay icon of “Torch Song Trilogy,” “Kinky Boots” and “La Cage aux Folles” fame) forces the arguments a bit.

Yet his main points — about how everyone is truly unique, and how differences should be celebrated, not denigrated –come through clearly in the delightful makeover scene in which the girls gleefully offer up falsies, wig styling, eyebrow plucking and compliments to the blossoming Miranda. It’s a treat.

REVIEW

Casa Valentina
Where: New Conservatory Theatre Center, 25 Van Ness Ave., S.F.
When: 8 p.m. Wednesdays-Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays; closes Nov. 7
Tickets: $25 to $50
Contact: (415) 861-8972, www.nctcsf.org

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