Straight, White-Collar Men Escape Families and Dress as Women in JET Drama
A story about the lives of women named Miranda, Bessie, Valentina, Charlotte, Gloria, Terry and Amy who meet regularly at their favorite vacation spot in the Catskills doesn't sound like a terribly exciting play. But, how about if their real names are Jonathon, Albert, George, Isadore, Michael, Theodore and one simply referred to as The Judge? And what if their beloved resort is a secluded hideaway that caters to straight men who secretly love to dress as women?
That's the far more entertaining spin Harvey Fierstein puts on his 2014 Tony Award-winning "Casa Valentina" that opens May 24 and runs through June 17 – but not at The Ringwald, where you'd likely expect to find it. Instead, the drama will take place on the stage of The Jewish Ensemble Theatre in West Bloomfield, although don't be surprised if a couple of familiar Ringwald stalwarts are among the cast.
Among them is Joe Bailey, co-founder and artistic director of The Ringwald, who portrays Albert/Bessie, described in the script as "Willy Loman by day, Ethel Merman at night." Nominated for an Encore Michigan Wilde Award more than a dozen times – many of which featured him in bright red lipstick and a dress – Bailey recently told BTL while on break from a rehearsal that the play "is set in 1962 at a resort in the Catskills, where heterosexual men can go and dress as women and live for a weekend or a week at a time completely free of prying eyes or outside interlopers, and just really be who they feel they really are."
One weekend, however, their comfort zone gets tested.
"Someone shows up who has bigger ideas for this resort and for this organization to which they belong and tries to incorporate it as a non-profit organization," Bailey said. "But that comes with strings attached."
One of which is the risk of public exposure, something the characters work hard to prevent.
"We all have families," explained Vince Kelley, another popular Ringwald regular who earned a 2016 Wilde Award for his dynamite, cross-dressing performance in "Heathers: The Musical," who plays Michael/Gloria. "Joe has a nice lengthy bit about how he's defined a balance with his wife and his children and everything. It's all perfectly aligned, and how could you throw a wrench in that?" he said. "I have some lines about what would happen to my business. I think that today, you might be able to come out the other side of it, whereas back then there wasn't an option. You would be risking absolutely everything."
Indeed they would.
"Everything was so black and white in the past," added Charles VanHoose, who plays one of the group's elders, the sweet and silly Theodore/Terry. "Now it's just millions of shades of gray. You're talking transsexual, transvestite, cross-dressing, bisexual, homosexual, heterosexual; it's just there's so many different aspects other than just gay/straight."
True. But for these characters, navigating the world of cross-dressing as married, heterosexual men is confusing and difficult enough.
"I mean, it just seems sad. It seems like (they were) trapped. It seems unfortunate that you can only be yourself under such very, very strict guidelines and rules and schedules and all that stuff," said Kelley.
And that begs an answer to a very important question according to VanHoose.
"I find it a bit difficult to understand why a heterosexual man would want to dress as a woman," said VanHoose. "I understand certain aspects of the smoothness of the cloth and all of that. Still, you kind of think is there a little bit of gay (there)? Is there a gay personality behind these guys, even though they're married and have children? I won't give away the ending of the show, but we learn a lot about why these guys do what they do and why they do it."
There are no simple answers, of course.
"It's interesting, because today we have so many more avenues of gender neutral and non-conforming and all of that sort of stuff," Bailey said, "(Yet) in the time of this play, it's really just men who wear women's clothing. I think that's how we see ourselves as the characters in the play. But I do think that there are some of us who are gay men. I think there are some of us who really — it's a sexual thing wearing women's clothing. Or bisexual. But in the world of this play, we are heterosexual men who wear women's clothing, period. And that's it."
After seeing the play in New York, Kelley left the show thinking about the difficulty of a repressed lifestyle like that.
"Those poor people! I dress up like a woman because I think it's fun and I love attention. But they were doing it because of something inside of them that they felt that they had to," Kelley said. "It wasn't performance art or anything like that. It was just, sort of, they're doing it in hiding, whereas I only dress up as a woman when there's at least 20 to 25 people watching me. I hope that's what people leave (the show) with: It's not a choice; it's ingrained in who you are. Let people feel the way that they want to feel without intervening."
"Especially if it doesn't affect you in any sort of way, you know what I mean?" VanHoose added.
Although "Casa Valentina" is based on a true story, if Fierstein tackled the issue today, one of the characters would likely be transitioning, Bailey believes. Kelley agrees, and he sees what's happening today as continuation of the struggle for LGBTQ rights that started with people such as those in the play.
"It's like now it's kind of becoming (the trans community's) turn," he said. "They get to experience what the gays fought for in the last two decades, if you will. I think that they're having their moment, so that's why I think the show is very timely. As the layers start breaking down and you have non-binary and you have all these other new labels, I think each one of them is going to have their own little battle."
Likely so. And it all comes down to this, Bailey believes: "It's so funny. I mean, really. Why is this skirt that I'm wearing for a woman? It's a piece of material! But we view it with such meaning, genderwise, that when I sit down and think about it, it's just so silly. It's just a piece of clothing."
"Casa Valentina," directed by Harold Jurkiewicz, also features Jean Lepard, Ron Williams, David Gram, Greg Trzaskoma, Arthur Beer and Kelly Komlen. It will be JET's final main stage production at the Aaron DeRoy Theatre inside the Jewish Community Center in West Bloomfield before the company moves elsewhere in the fall. The production contains adult themes and is recommended for mature audiences only.
The Jewish Ensemble Theatre
Aaron Deroy Theatre at the Jewish Community Center
6600 W. Maple Road, West Bloomfield
Tickets: $16 to $44
7:30 p.m. Thursday, May 24
2 p.m. Thursday, June 7
8 p.m. Fridays, June 1, 15
5 p.m. & 8:30 p.m. Saturday, May 26, June 2, 9, 16
2 p.m. Sunday, May 27, June 3, 10, 17