Far and away, the most effortlessly feminine facsimile to be found in Casa Valentina April 23 at the Samuel J. Friedman is Reed Birney. No contest. He is the fairest of the not-so-fair at this Catskills home-away-from-home for the committed cross-dresser.
Crowned with a Bette Davis bird-nest 'do, puffing cigarettes incessantly and speaking with sharp assurance (rightly or wrongly) about everything, Birney pretty much rules the roost here, where transvestites assembled in the '60s for long, lost weekends of drinking, dining, dancing, playing cards, lip-synching the McGuire Sisters and, most of all, passing for female among their sister peers. Calling himself Charlotte (after "Hush... Hush, Sweet..." maybe?), he's in an advanced state of grand.
"I'm a little surprised myself," the actor confessed a bit sheepishly at the after-party held across the street from the Friedman at the Copacabana, "but it's exactly what you want as an actor where something magical happens like that. I don't quite know where Charlotte comes from in me, but she's really fun. Even at my audition — I put myself on tape in Boston last fall when I was doing All The Way up there — I just got her right away. I didn't have a wig or makeup or anything, but I knew who she was."
Getting used to gussying up was quite an experience for the guys, according to Birney. "We all had a very interesting experience when we put on our wigs and dresses and high heels for the first time. We each had our own sort of individual thing. I thought I was going to pass out. It does change you — in very real, subtle ways — so you don't have to act it. And that's something our director, Joe Mantello, said, which was very smart from the beginning. Our first two days of rehearsal were just kind of Femininity Boot Camp, and we realized, when we have this new bonding place to go to, there's no reason to act anything. The clothes and the wigs and everything — they do a lot of the work for us."
By any other name, Charlotte is Virginia French, "a pioneer transvestite-militant performer, traveling around the country to Rotary groups dressed as a woman full time, explaining we're like everybody else — not gay, not all the things you think of us — just regular guys who happen to like to wear women's clothes."
Names have been changed to protect the vaguely tarnished, but Fierstein correctly identifies the place where they hung out half a century ago in his play proper. Casa Valentina is really Chevalier d'Eon, named for Charles-Genevieve-Louis-Auguste-Andre-Timothee-d'Eon de Beaumont, a 17th-century gender-bender who spent his first 49 years as a man and his last 33 years as a woman.
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