Victor Raider-Wexler, a venerable actor with a voice as deep as magma, has never performed as a woman before.
Raider-Wexler plays a judge – a straight man of high social esteem who has a lot at stake when he changes into women's clothing and assumes the name of Amy for weekend getaways to a resort in the Catskill Mountains, circa 1962.
“The unique challenge for me," Raider-Wexler says of his character, "is finding what makes this particular man so happy when he can get away from all the encumbrances of life, and (join) this mellow, collegial gathering of people who just seem to appreciate each other, without any of the other things that make life hard.”
The six other heterosexual men who dress as women in "Casa Valentina" have their own reasons for visiting the Catskills resort, which is not a figment of the Tony-winning playwright Harvey Fierstein's rich imagination but was, in fact, a real place called Casa Susanna, "a 1950s transvestite hideaway." After a New York City antique dealer discovered photographs of the men in their preferred attire, the photographs were published in a book, which is what inspired Fierstein.
Spinning Tree's Michael Grayman Parkhurst saw the play when it premiered on Broadway in 2014.
“I applaud Harvey for doing this piece, because it’s truly something people have never seen before,” he says. “This piece has everything. It has Harvey Fierstein’s wit, so it’s got the comedy, but it also is so incredibly relevant today.”
"It is interesting because the story isn’t about the cross-dressing. It’s about the people,” says Nicole Marie Green, who co-directs the production with Parkhurst. “I’ve had people come up and say, ‘Wow that’s going to be pretty funny seeing these guys in dresses.’ Yes, to a certain extent it is, but it’s not about that. The story we’re trying to tell is about human nature. It’s a historical piece.”
Today, we have an expanded vocabulary for understanding a wider variety of human behavior. The men at Casa Valentina appear more interested in getting a few days’ relief from burdensome expectations of stereotypical masculinity than in transitioning to live authentically as women. And history went a different direction from the one predicted by a character named Isadore/Charlotte, based on the real-life publisher of a magazine called “Transvestia,” who hopes to make the practice more socially acceptable.
"Fifty years from now, when homosexuals are still scuttling about as the back-alley vermin of society," Charlotte says, "cross-dressing will be as everyday as cigarette smoking. And transvestites everywhere will celebrate those in this room for making the hard decisions that led to their liberation."
Two actual women are in the cast (Jan Rogge as the wife of the resort owner, and Claudia Copping as the daughter of Raider-Wexler's Judge/Amy). Per Fierstein's script, each of the other seven actors has two names: one for the man he is in his regular life, and one for the woman he gets to become at Casa Valentina. Only one member of this production's cast, Kansas City drag icon De De DeVille, has any experience with this sort of thing.
“I was like, ‘What is my female voice being going to be?’" says John Rensenhouse, who plays resort owner George/Valentina. "I tried on certain higher registers and affected speech. Then I figured, 'I don’t know what it’s going to be. I’m going to let the clothing inform me, follow the advice my body is giving me when I’m in the attire.’”
The high heels hurt, of course. But for Rensenhouse, the clothes led to revelations.
“Oddly enough, through all the pain and what not, there is a certain amount of freedom that comes from being in these clothes we are not familiar with – freedom to be a different person," he says. "For me, it's a lighter expression, I tend to feel jollier, happier – skirts are fun! That’s good.”
But Rensenhouse has also experienced another, distinctly different, feeling.
“Part of this play involves other people questioning the decisions Valentina’s making. And I have been surprised by how that has affected me in rehearsal, to have other people criticizing you, haranguing you,” he says. “When you get a whole chorus of people saying what you’re doing is wrong, it’s really much more disheartening than I had anticipated.”
That, too, is good, he says, because it helps deepen the character for him. But he’s discovered how, he says, “even the most confident person would begin to question themselves when faced with a lineup of their best friends questioning their decisions.”
It’s those kinds of lessons that make acting an art form, says Raider-Wexler.
“If you’re not learning something, you’re doing a skit, and I try as hard as I can to not be a skit performer," Raider-Wexler says. "I try very hard to say, 'If you’re going to come see me, you’ll see something I had to dig to find – and maybe you haven’t found either.'”
Spinning Tree Theatre's "Casa Valentina," October 27 through November 12 at Just Off Broadway Theatre, 3051 Central, Kansas City, Missouri, 64141; 816-235-6222.
C.J. Janovy is an arts reporter for KCUR 89.3. You can find her on Twitter, @cjjanovy.