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How he connects with his character in "Casa Valentina"
Welcome to Building Character our ongoing look at actors and how they create their roles
When Patrick Page was playing Cyrano de Bergerac at the Old Globe, he would walk the streets of San Diego imagining he really was a man with an enormous nose. He wasn't wearing a prosthetic, but in his mind, everyone noticed his schnoz. "Everything people did or didn't do as I walked past, I took personally," he says. "If they looked at me, I got mad. If they looked away, I got even more mad."
That exercise has also been handy for his turn as the title character in Casa Valentina, the new Harvey Fierstein play now on Broadway at Manhattan Theatre Club's Samuel J. Friedman Theatre.
Page stars as George, the proprietor of a Catskills resort that caters to male transvestites in the early 1960s. Like his customers, George has a female persona, and when everyone gathers for the weekend, their feminine identities take over. In lovely gowns and wigs, they drink, dance, and give each other makeovers, and most importantly, they do it without fear of retribution.
Most of the guests can toggle easily between their personae. Just like the real-life men on which this play is based, many are in heterosexual marriages, and even if they prefer their feminine selves, they can still slip into "male drag" without much of a problem.
For George, however, the transition is not so simple. Though he's married to Rita (Mare Winningam) and swears he'd be lost without her, he's become increasingly connected to Valentina, his female identity.
"The truth for George is that being George has become almost impossible," Page says. "Val knows how to handle things, whereas a lot of George's brain is given over to pretending, pretending, pretending."
The actors' own process of pretending began early in Casa Valentina's rehearsals: Page and his costars spent considerable amounts of time in women's clothes. They shaved their legs, tweezed their eyebrows, teetered on heels, and eventually ventured into the outside world.
But Page, whose silky bass voice alone would be a giveaway during any trip to the corner deli, says he benefited just as much from walkabouts similar to the ones he had in San Diego. The transvestite in his imagination became just as powerful as his literal costume.
"After weeks of preparation---and I think a lot of actors do this, regardless of the role---I started to walk around trying to see the world through Valentina's mind," he says. "Eventually, if you're lucky, you cross a little threshold and the character starts to play you a little bit, instead of you playing the character."
During his research, Page has also learned how much a person like George/Valentina would have endured in the 1960s. "I'm very surprised how much heterosexual cross-dressing really upsets people," he says. "They have a very hard time accepting that these people exist. The assumption is that they're all just closet cases. But if you look at the statistics, it's mostly straight men who are transvestites."
In fact, a central plot point in the show involves whether a newly official sorority of transvestites will repudiate homosexuality in order to gain public legitimacy.
That discussion is phrased very differently in 1962 than it would be today, but the issues at the core of Casa Valentina remain complicated. "We're asking the audience to take a hell of a journey," Page says. And if the play succeeds, audiences might very well find themselves walking through Manhattan, seeing the streets through Valentina's eyes.
Eric Grode is a freelance arts writer and a professor at Syracuse University’s Goldring Arts Journalism Program
Photo by Matthew Murphy