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Friday, June 06, 2014

Uni(que)sex - Casa Valentina and Queer Bathroom Stories - Play Reviews

Casa Valentina - Manhattan Theatre Club at the Samuel Friedman Theatre - Broadway - New York City, NY - **** (out of 5 stars)
Written by Harvey Fierstein, Directed by Joe Mantello
Runs until June 29th, 2014

Queer Bathroom Stories - Buddies in Bad Times Theatre - Toronto, ON - *** (out of 5 stars)
Written by Sheila Cavanagh, Directed by Megan Watson
Runs until June 15th, 2014


Sexuality is far more fluid and if we seem to be a bit better at understanding that, the fluidity of gender identity is an even more misunderstood aspect of humans, and two new plays attempt to explore how we identify genders from within ourselves and from society.

               

Casa Valentina, the new play by Harvey Fierstein, who has had great success in several drag comedies (Torch Song Trilogy, La Cage Aux Folles, Kinky Boots) brings things back to a calmer, more introspective play about a group of straight-identified men who love to dress up as women. In 1962. Even today we don't quite understand that notion as a society and would assume that the men are just gay men who have not realized, or wanted to come out. But back then, in the Catskills, a married couple opened up a resort hidden away from the prying eyes of the world where these men could, at least momentarily while on vacation, be who they truly wanted to be, in a dress.

               

It's a fascinating look into a world we tend to mesh with the trans, gay or drag community, and maybe there is some intermixing (as a dramatic plot point interludes) but Fierstein embraces these men, and the woman who loves them (in a heartbreaking performance by Tony-nominated Mare Winningham (Philomena)) that the play is fascinating and fresh when he lets the characters slowly reveal themselves in their natural and most comfortable surroundings, letting them interact at their true core.

               

The cast is first rate, with layered performances by Nick Westrate (Unnatural Acts), Tom McGowan (Frasier), John Collum (The Scottsboro Boys), Gabriel Ebert (Matilda), Patrick Page (Spider-Man: Turn off the Dark), Larry Pine (Moonrise Kingdom) and Reed Birney (also Tony nominated for this performance).

Unfortunately, Fierstein also tries to set up a dramatic plotline to ante up the stakes, with financial troubles forcing a possibility this refuge may end up closing forever. The machinations to get the plot going bog down the spirit of the play, and distract from an otherwise fascinating character study (and entertaining ensemble). With so much to already explore with the issues at hand, the plotting device only clouds up the most fascinating ideas in the play.


In Queer Bathroom Stories, a series of vignettes written by Sheila Cavanagh based on real-life incidences and interviews about stories that take place in and around the public lavatory, the opposite problem of the play keeps the show from its potential best.

               

While there are plenty of funny moments, most of the humour derive from the final punchlines from a response that ends up being lighter than its weighty set up. The play, while hints and mentions many fascinating aspects about queer and gender identity culture that is cleverly revealed through the simple act of choosing which gendered bathroom to go into while in a public space, the tone tends to stay serious and dark, and the stories tend to be short and abrupt, sometimes down to a couple of lines per story. Each one individually is interesting and revealing, but put them together as a whole, and it never quite amounts to as much as a play as a whole.

               

While plays like The Vagina Monologues and Love, Loss, and What I Wore have successfully tied together short stories (with a female empowerment slant), the varying tones and styles, from humorous to serious, and the variation of short quips to longer, more in depth stories. Queer Bathroom Stories has a nice baseline to work with and with some finessing and editing, can possibly become a great night at the theatre, as some of the vignettes are fascinating but seem to end before it truly gets into the dramatic part of its core.

Great direction by Megan Watson keeps each bathroom story flowing from one to the next, keeping what can be a static style of theatre, into something that feels theatrical. Hallie Burt and Chi Ryan Spain don't always hit on every story but when they truly connect with a particular story, it can be powerful and dramatic. Tyson James is quite haunting from the first moment and never lets up, revealing strengths and vulnerabilities between each character in each story, that often jump from one to another in lighting speed.

Photos of Casa Valentina by Matthew Murphy
Photos of Queer Bathroom Stories by Dahlia Katz
Vance at http://tapeworthy.blogspot.com

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