In Harvey Fierstein's Tony-nominated play, Casa Valentina, men embody women. Or rather they reveal themselves through women's clothing, mannerisms and identities. Set in 1962 and based on real events at a Catskills resort, the story follows (self-identified) straight men who escape the constraints of their everyday lives through opposite gender identifications. Under the masterful direction of Joe Mantello, the varied, mellifluous, and vibrant ways these men come to life as their alter egos emboldens us to question the word identity itself. And the roles gender plays in it.
As psychoanalyst Adrienne Harris writes, "Some... are caught up in the losses and emptiness of identity, some in the deep enmeshment of body and psyche, and some in the sliding and playful paradoxes of performance and authenticity."
The men in the play are initially caught up in the deep enmeshment of body and psyche, as their coherence as a group depends upon strict rules when dressed in their female embodiments: e.g., they must address each other by their chosen female names. This doesn't leave room for recognizing the losses and emptiness of identity, as we witness the novice newcomer, Jonathan, getting ignored as (s)he makes her/his virginal entrance as "Miranda," fumbling to the dinner table unkempt. But when Miranda attempts to make a coy exit, empathy and a strong sense of play spontaneously take hold of the seasoned cross dressers. They all agree to give her a makeover together, emphasizing the playful paradoxes of performance and authenticity with regard to identity, despite their rules.
And here is where the production becomes magical, luring us into the characters' secret, enchanted world; their "Garden of Eden," as one of them refers to it. This is not RuPaul's Drag Race; they are not trying to outperform one another. During this sequence you get the sense that these men-as-women are being rather than doing. As each of them delights in decorating Miranda in their own unique, authentic, and playful way, we begin to forget who's a man, who's a woman, and who cares. One could appreciate here Adrienne Harris' suggestion that gender is not rigid, fixed or binary, but rather that it is "softly assembled." We become absorbed in the the shared playfulness among the characters, particularly in the ways they shower Miranda/Jonathan with loving recognition. As Harris writes, "There is a deep expansiveness that comes from recognition and belonging, and there are the quirky spurts and frissons when the unexpected, the transgressive, the novel emerge into view."
But as with any story with a "Garden of Eden," a snake must slither in to keep things real. Before dinner is over, the game of dress-up becomes one of Axis and Allies as a discussion about a rule to ban gays from joining their revelry fractures the group. The two leaders rigidly defend the "no queer's allowed" policy, effectively turning the soft light of their rarefied, idyllic play space into one more common and harsh.
Founding psychoanalyst Melanie Klein's theories may help to explain this split between "good" straight crossdressers and "bad" gay men. As I have written elsewhere, Klein theorized that in states of anxiety -- such as being a "straight" man who feels the need to secretly dress as a woman -- we split self and other. We create a them-versus-us, pushing away feelings of vulnerability, dependency and need. In such moments, we fail to hold both "good" and "bad" feelings -- we continue to split and project rigid notions of "good" versus "bad," "masculine" versus "feminine," "straight" versus "gay." A current example of such splitting is the palpable transphobia that runs through the LGBTQ communities.
The climax of Casa Valentina erupts in Act II, during a festive dance party when one of the men kisses Miranda, causing her to instantly split by turning back into Jonathan with an aggressive, defensive, punch. The party is over.
In 1991, nearly 30 years after the play takes place, psychoanalyst Virginia Goldner argued that "gender coherence, consistency, conformity, and identity are culturally mandated normative ideals" and that "to conform to their dictates requires the activation of a false-self system." The play makes this point as its unsettling conflicts are born out of the characters' rigid conformity to normative ideals, causing them to uphold a brittle, ultimately destructive, "false" sense of self: e.g., as unquestionably "straight" men by day and as women with entirely different biographies by night. They could take a page from Goldner, who suggests that "the ability to tolerate the ambiguity and instability of gender categories is more [desirable] than the goal of 'achieving' a single, pure, sex-appropriate view of oneself." Twenty some odd years after Goldner penned her article we are still in need of its message.
Thinking back on the enchanting, dreamy delights of the play's Act I reminds us that the characters had within them the capacity to tolerate the ambiguity of gender categories that Goldner envisions. To "stand in the spaces" between genders, to invoke psychoanalyst Philip Bromberg, or as I say, to play in the spaces: maintain reverie while also embracing the painful need to negotiate self states. How can we find this capacity within ourselves?
Perhaps playing in the spaces becomes possible when play is inclusive (of men, straight or gay, and of women, however they dress, behave or identify). When Jonathans are allowed to wear dresses and heels without being forced to be called Miranda. When unkempt rookies can be engaged -- playfully, empathically -- without the shaming pressure of being either a dapperly dressed man or a glamorously dressed woman and nothing in between. When play can take the form of a mellifluous dance of various bodies, minds, experiences, conflicts, and identifications, all at the same time, without having to crescendo to one abrupt, violent, necessarily definitive climax. Such a climax makes for an evocative ending to a great, thought provoking play, but as inspiration for our own lives we might look to the gauzy-lit, ambiguous, revelry, of Casa Valentina's Act I.