The actors in a new play from Harvey Fierstein experience a different kind of male bonding.
There are the classic examples of la Cage aux Folles and Torch Song Trilogy—on stage and on screen in the ’70s and ’80s—followed by Mrs. Doubtfire (1993), The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (1994), The Birdcage (1996), Kinky Boots (film 2005, stage 2012), and of course, the legendary RuPaul in years of Greenwich Village gay pride parades. There are others, too, and by now, most of us are pretty familiar with the concept of drag queens and the phenomenon of men dressing as women for various reasons. But many people still don’t know that cross-dressing itself does not inherently convey transgender identity and that most cross-dressers are not gay. One of my ex-wives dated a hetero cross-dresser; she found him out when she noticed her underwear was stretched. And none of these famous plays, films, or performances explores men dressing as women “just because,” as in just because these men thrill in identifying with the feminine inside themselves.
In Mrs. Doubtfire, Robin Williams impersonates a nanny to win back the right to spend time with his kids.
In The Birdcage, gay lover Nathan Lane dresses as a woman to fool his prospective in-laws.
In Priscilla, Terence Stamp and his gay male friends dress as exotic dancers to earn money providing roadside entertainment.
In Kinky Boots, Billy Porter uses his expertise in women’s footwear to become a fashion advisor and save a dying business.
And RuPaul, well …
Now Casa Valentina is coming to Broadway: a new play by Harvey Fierstein that chronicles the lives of a group of heterosexual, alpha-male cross-dressers from the ’60s who gathered at a Catskills hotel for camaraderie and feminine fun. As Patrick Healy writes in The New York Times:
The play, now in previews, is based on a real Catskills resort where husbands and fathers went in the 1960s to dress and act as women. These were white-collar professionals hobbling in heels, not drag queens sashaying in stilettos; men expressing their femininity without compromising their maleness. Such was the appeal of the real-life resort, originally called the Chevalier d’Eon — named after a legendary 18th-century cross-dresser and spy — and then Casa Susanna after one of its proprietors, otherwise known as Tito Valenti.
The play requires the actors to achieve a delicate balance between genders that goes well beyond acting. The actors had to transcend role playing and travel deep within themselves to find, get in touch with, embrace, and learn to celebrate their non-male qualities. To launch them on that journey, Fierstein and director Joe Mantello began with a weekend “transvestite boot camp” at which the actors “arrived to find a huge table covered with ladies’ wigs in ’60s-era hairdos — flips, bobs, French twists.” Over the two days, they went from ogling the accoutrements to “zipping up one another’s clothes and offering makeup tips.” In an interesting twist on male bonding, a group of male performers developed close ties with each other over finding their feminine sides. It wasn’t easy.
The challenge in “Casa Valentina” is to create authentic portraits of the complicated men under the makeup. The boot camp was only a start. Mr. Page’s character, for instance, a court stenographer named George, arrives at the resort in a suit and tie and plants a kiss on his wife, Rita (played by Mare Winningham), and then asks whether she has combed out the wig for his femme persona, Valentina, which he will soon become.
For the play to succeed, Mr. Page said, conversations like these need to come across as unremarkable — normal — to audiences, and George’s heterosexuality can never be in doubt. (Most cross-dressers are straight, and sexuality is a key theme ….)
What do the experiences of male actors confronting the challenge of playing women tell us about traditional gender roles? On the one hand, we see how hard it can be to transcend these roles, and on the other, that a feminine aspect lives inside all men. As the actors transformed themselves through costumes and makeup, they achieved the depth of understanding that comes from living inside another person’s skin.
If the guests at Casa Valentina love looking in the mirror at their femme selves, some of the actors have struggled with it. Mr. Birney recalled having a hard time making peace with how he looked as a woman.
“I was heartbroken,” he said. “I asked the makeup artist, ‘Can you make me prettier?’ ”
Mr. McGowan and the seventh man in the play, Larry Pine, said they had to reckon with their sagging middle-aged bodies, and the girdles and corsets used in the play.
“I look in the mirror, and I see a hideous woman, absolutely hideous,” Mr. Pine said. Asked if that hurt, he replied, “Yeah.”
I’ve never dressed as a woman or wanted to, but as a man who is considered “sensitive” and attuned to women’s feelings by my female friends, and as a single father who provides a fair amount of “mothering” for my sons, I sometimes feel I am expressing what would stereotypically be called my more feminine, feeling-oriented, nurturing side. But I don’t think of these qualities as inherently feminine. I think of them as human qualities and as aspects of my personality that simply make me a more well-rounded and compassionate man.
The oldest of the actors, two-time Tony winner John Cullum who is 84, said after he read the play, “‘I thought transvestites were female performers, but they’re not. These are actual guys who feel real empathy and anguish.'” I’m not sure how to interpret Cullum’s words. I don’t think he means that most guys don’t feel real empathy and anguish, though given his age and generation, I suppose it’s possible. I think it’s more likely that he’s saying what I’m saying, which is that cross-dressers are not so much men impersonating women as men using the image, mannerisms, and affect of a woman to feel more human and more whole.