At a mountain resort in 1962 in the Catskills, a group of men got together on the weekends and dressed as women.
Such is the world of “Casa Valentina,” a provocative offering from playwright Harvey Fierstein and StageWorks Fresno. Based on real people, this is no campy comedy with cheap jokes about men in drag. It’s a deeply insightful glimpse at a fascinating period of history and a group of men struggling to feel whole.
The character of George, who owns the Catskills resort with his wife, is central in the play. At one point the affable George puts on women’s clothing and all the assorted makeup and accessories to become Valentina. The role demands not only physical prowess as an actor but emotional dexterity as well.
As host, George provides a safe, shame-free haven for respected businessmen to cross-dress on weekends. But the character is more than just an affable host: He’s in the middle of the play’s complexities, from the group’s prevailing attitudes toward homosexuality to coming to terms with his own nontraditional marriage.
Richard Ruth, a founding member of Good Company Players who went on to do great things as an actor from Fresno, including roles on Broadway, is tackling the role of George. It’s a rare treat for theatergoers to see him in action on a local stage, having last appeared in 2012 as Edna, the mother in “Hairspray” – a role traditionally played by a man – for GCP. We caught up with Ruth via email to talk about “Casa Valentina” and its impact.
Q: After “Hairspray,” you’ve often told people there’d have to be a really special role to tempt you back to the stage. What about George/Valentina made you take the bait?
A: Without a doubt it is the level of artistry embodied by StageWorks Fresno that enticed me to be a part of this experience. I have great appreciation for the varied, sometimes bold, always nuanced work they offer Fresno audiences. They present a topical and relevant menu, season after season.
Q: In “Hairspray” you were a man playing a woman (albeit to comic effect). In “Casa Valentina,” you play a man who likes to dress and pass for a woman. Is it a radically different experience between these roles?
A: Although playing “Hairspray’s” Edna remains one of the great delights of my theater career, the role carries the stamp of some great celebrity performances. Valentina, too, has been played by others of note, but I’ve never seen any of those performances. I consciously avoided exposure to any of these, avoiding even YouTube. I wanted the character to develop from the script and from my own life experiences – from my own observations of masculine and feminine and how these gender roles clash and flow.
Q: The cross-dressing characters in the play for the most part are anti-gay and make a point of it. I think this may surprise some people.
A: Learning that most cross-dressers were homophobic is a definite surprise to most of us. And that’s putting it mildly. In this play you’ll be exposed to a wide range of opinion and attitudes within just this small group of cross-dressing men. The complexity and diversity of these men’s feelings will leave the audience with conflicting questions and will stir up unwanted thoughts and emotions.
Valentina’s paralyzing fear of what others will think of her represents a universal quandary … that is not only exclusive to these men who “dress.”
Q: You told me that playing this role brought up intense memories about some of your own experiences growing up. How?
A: First of all, I don’t for a moment think I’m fooling anyone. I am clearly a man in a dress. And that’s been funny for centuries. But I will tell you that exploring this character has brought back long-forgotten memories for me. I recalled walking down the sidewalk at age 4 on tiptoe – while my father and neighbors watched chuckling and shaking their heads.
I also remembered running over to the neighbor’s garage because she had crinoline slips for me to twirl in and pretty plastic high heels that she allowed me to try on. I remember feeling regal just standing in them.
My parents, although always very supportive, felt they had to discourage these behaviors. It was, after all, the ’60s, the same time in which this play is set. So, yes, reading the play dragged out many memories for me. Painful memories like being bullied by classmates. Being publicly bullied by a school principal who thought I was more feminine than a boy should be. Being laughed at and called sissy. All more or less sanctioned by the adults at school. School was a world of fear and I had to be vigilant in pretending to be someone I wasn’t.
That treatment, that pretending and observing, however, proved to be the catalyst for my career and success. I remember thinking to myself, “Just wait, some day they will all want to be my friend. I’ll be famous.” I’m not famous, but I have learned that we all share that experience of being driven to prove ourselves to someone in our lives and that we all share plenty of scrapes and bruises acquired during the struggle to find our places in life.
Q: Is the experience of this play changing your attitudes about cross-dressing?
A: The person who opened my mind – dramatically – about cross-dressers and transgendered individuals is Karen Adell Scot. Karen is transgender and survived a harrowing and misunderstood existence for over 40 years. She is now a bold champion for all those in need of acceptance and community.
Q: What is the hardest part of passing as a woman on stage?
A: Oh my, there isn’t just one thing. Just to list a few: shaving body hair, putting on makeup daily, very restrictive undergarments. At the top of the list – and any woman will agree – is wearing high-heeled shoes for hours on end. Teetering on stilts of pain and discomfort, until you simply can’t take one more step!
Q: What is one thing you hope audiences take away from the play?
A: I think that everyone will have different takeaways from this play. I think the audience may experience moments of pleasure and laughter and tears and disgust. What I take away from this show is that trying to separate ourselves from one another with finger-pointing, generalizations and labels in today’s world is archaic, unjust and harmful to the whole. We are all people capable of great love and grace if we simply embrace what there is to embrace.
- 7:30 p.m. Friday, July 29; 2 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday, July 30; 2 p.m. Sunday, July 31; and Aug. 4-7
- Pessano Theatre in the Clovis North High School performing arts center, 2770 E. International Ave.
- $23, $20 students and seniors.
- www.stageworksfresno.com, 559-289-6622