by Beki Pineda

CASA VALENTINA – Written by Harvey Fierstein; Directed by Nick Sugar. Produced by Town Hall Arts Center (2450 West Main Street, Littleton) through February 3. Tickets available at townhallartscenter.org or 303-794-2787.

Closets still exist, as the specialized community that gathers weekends at Chevalier d’Eon, a haven for men who like to express “the girl within” by dressing as women on weekends. It was named after a French man who was incorrectly identified as a woman most of his life. As the “girls” arrive and don their gay apparel, the stress goes out of their bodies and their faces relax. Each are aware of the gift of being able to exercise their feminine selves in this safe haven given to them by owners George and Rita. The guests on the weekend we visit run the gauntlet from old hands to a newbie there for the first time. (Fun fact:  the original Broadway production of CASA VALENTINA featured Gabriel Ebert, a graduate of the Denver School of the Arts, as Jonathan, the new kid.)

This particular weekend, however, also includes a special guest. Charlotte is an organizer who is there to talk all of the guests into signing onto the proposal of making their rather secret sorority into a public non-profit recognized by the government (supposedly for tax and fundraising benefits). But this means public exposure, a prospect greeted with suspicion by these mostly married men who have carefully negotiated these girl’s weekends away with spouses and families. Exposure to a wider circle of work colleagues and home communities could bring their precariously constructed house of cards tumbling down. In addition, Charlotte feels strongly that they must disavow themselves as having anything in common with the gay community. As far as anyone knows, these are all steadfast heterosexual men who just like to dress up. She believes that it is homosexual behavior that the public at large abhors and that, once cross-dressers were publicly identified as normal guys living and working next door to you, they would be more easily accepted. Sorry, Charlotte, naïve and self-deluded.

In one of the most powerful speeches in the performance, Terry (Bob Wells), one of the experienced visitors, strongly disagrees with Charlotte’s assessment and expresses approval for the gay community that has always supported her. She flatly states that she will not sign any pledge that could harm her gay friends either emotionally or politically. Stand up and cheer!! But Charlotte has another bomb in her little arsenal and tried to blackmail Amy who, in real life, is a Judge and vulnerable to exposure. Somehow she has gotten copies of some incriminating photographs which leads to a climatic showdown and reveals Charlotte for being a snake in the grass.

Director Sugar has pulled together a cast of some of the top male actors in town, six of which are making their Town Hall debuts. I know you’ll find this hard to believe but, while they are believable as women, they are certainly not “pretty women.” Phil Luna as George the owner and Valentina, the “hostess,” is the prettiest, bringing Anita in WEST SIDE STORY to mind with his dark curly wig and expressive eyes. The old-timers were Mark Collins as Amy/The Judge; Bill Kahn as Bessie in a sassy, confident portrayal; Tim Howard as the down to earth Gloria; and Bob Wells as the strong-minded Terry. Newcomer to Denver Archie Archuleta also plays the newcomer to the Casa as Miranda/Jonathan. Sam Gilstrap takes on the role of the devious Charlotte. The women’s parts are played by Melissa McCarl as Rita, the unwavering wife, and Emily Tuckman as the Judge’s daughter who brings the “real” world into their carefully constructed fantasy land. It is especially telling that while the “girls” like to dress up and pretend to be women, they certainly do not take on the women’s roles in the outside world of cooking the meals or cleaning up after. The most these broads do is pour drinks and talk about how great it is to feel like a female. Get a broom, baby!!

While this play was written in 2014, it portrays the mentality and sexual politics of the 1960’s and illustrates with clarity how we have advanced as a society in some areas, but not in others. There’s a great deal left to think about at the conclusion of the play as it leaves unresolved what will happen next. One part of the stage reflects continuity while center stage, we have the beginning of a recognition of hopelessness.

A WOW factor of 8.5!!