Math Common Core : Friend or Foe?

 

Although Common Core State Standards were adopted in Massachusetts in 2010, the topic is still a lightening rod for impassioned critique and opinion. There is even an initiative, “End Common Core MA”, to place the increasingly controversial academic benchmarks on the 2016 state ballot, the first time voters would decide whether to keep the K-12 math and reading standards.

 

But for the parents of a young child who is learning math in a way that bears little resemblance to the way they were taught, there is a pressing issue that is more personal than political: how do I help my child with his math homework when I don’t understand it myself?

 

What exactly are math teachers teaching these children and how is it so different from how their parents were taught the same subject in the past?

 

In a nutshell, Common Core Standards for Mathematics emphasize the importance of building conceptual understanding before requiring students to memorize facts. One of the biggest stumbling blocks for parents is the fact that Common Core Standards have also replaced much of the language they learned to describe mathematical functions with new words. Instead of “reducing” fractions, students now “simplify.” Instead of “borrowing” or “carrying”, students now “regroup” or “trade.” Doing calculations in one’s head is encouraged; spitting out the right answer without being to explain how you got it is not.

 

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Pamela Halpern, Associate Professor at Salem State University in the Education Department, teaches math methods courses to students who will become elementary and middle school teachers. In the past, students learned in a directed, structured, “here’s what you do, here’s how you do it, here’s an example, now go do it” way. “We weren’t ever taught why we were doing what we were doing and what it meant,” Halpern said, adding, “Neither teacher nor student knew or cared what it meant as long as we got the right answer.”

 

While she is a proponent of Common Core Standards, she emphasizes to her classes that it is part of their ongoing responsibility to help parents understand how the standards translate into the day to day math work their children do at school.

 

“We in education do a disservice to parents and to ourselves by not letting parents in and educating them as to what we’re doing and why we’re doing it, and then actually having them do some of the work that their children are doing in class. We need to explain why we’re teaching what we’re teaching,” she said.

 

These days, there is a lot more talking during math classes because Common Core emphasizes that students actually understand the problem and persevere in solving it. They are encouraged to be curious, to have a variety of ways to solve each problem, and to be able to justify their arguments and critique the reasoning of others. “Math is about more than calculating. There are so many different ways to solve a problem and think about it, and so when students share their thinking, it opens up new ways of thinking for all students,” Halpern said.

 

Arthur Unobskey, Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum and Instruction for Gloucester Public Schools, believes that Common Core math standards are a step in the right direction. “We need to teach differently in order to build an understanding of relationships that force students to connect different ideas they have learned, rather than just solve the problem. Our kids have not been able to compete with kids from other parts of the world because we don’t understand what is going on in a mathematics problem; we don’t understand how to apply our skills to new situations,” he said.

 

 

Unobskey admits it is an ongoing challenge to help parents understand the new ways math is being taught. Principals and teachers take time to explain the curriculum at school functions, such as Meet the Teacher nights, and teachers discuss it in newsletters, parent conferences and letters sent home. Marguerite Ruiz, Superintendent of Salem Public Schools, said that her district focuses its efforts at the school level through Math Nights and Open Houses. Salem has also invested in Math Coaches, teachers who have expertise and often certification in math, to plan these events and to serve as leaders and coaches of teachers at schools.

 

According to Halpern, this may not be enough. She tells her students that parent math nights are essential and should be held at least once every quarter. “Parents don’t know. I think if we clued them in, they’d be on board with the way we’re teaching things. We can’t expect them to know how to do it if they’ve never seen it before,” she said.

 

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Christen Nine, a Gordon College alumna and high school math teacher, believes all parents want to and should feel confident in their ability to interact with elementary children’s homework. While there are plenty of resources for teachers, she felt they lacked the clear, practical examples that parents care about. To fill their need for a politically neutral, educationally practical guide, she recently published a book titled, “A Parent’s Survival Guide to Common Core Math: Grades K-5”.

 

“The goal of this project was to provide a resource that would bridge the gap between the older teaching methodologies and the newer ones. That gap is much easier to fill than parents might think, and just as a good math teacher aims to reduce math anxiety in their students to promote quality learning, this book aims to alleviate confusion and frustration related to Common Core Standards in order to build up parents’ confidence to be informed advocates in their child’s math education,” Nine said.

 

The Common Core Standards have fans among most educators and administrators. “Anything that increases the rigor of instruction for children I am always going to be in favor of,” said Ruiz, noting that the bigger challenge in her district is building the capacity of teachers to be able to teach to that level. “Teachers need to be really knowledgeable and thoughtful about their implementation of these standards,” she said.

 

Unobskey, who holds a doctorate in math education, is a strong advocate for Common Core standards. “As it is implemented more and more effectively, students will uncover connections that show how math describes the world, and they will become more motivated to learn, and less afraid of math. Ultimately, our nation’s lack of comfort with math, I believe, is what holds our children back,” he said.

 

So why are citizen groups like “End Common Core MA” trying to do away with something that professional educators support?

 

“There is a lot of misinformation out there,” said Nine. “Maybe we didn’t do a good PR job for Common Core Standards.” She lamented the fact that “End Common Core MA” and groups like it either intentionally or unintentionally spread this misinformation. “It concerns me, as an educator, that decisions could be made from someone’s blog post or the most recent viral photo that’s going around Facebook,” she said.

 

For information about Common Core Standards, go to corestandards.org. To order Nine’s book, go to amazon.com.

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Native Fashion on the PEM Runway

 

 

When Karen Kramer, Peabody Essex Museum’s Curator of Native American and Oceanic Art and Culture, went to Santa Fe’s annual Indian Market, a traditional Native American juried show, she sensed there was a new, exciting movement afoot. It was edgier, unexpected and non-ceremonial.

 

Instead of the usual fare of beadwork, basketry and textiles, she noticed a new trend in contemporary Native American art, especially around fashion. “What I was seeing was fresh, relevant and a little bit sexy,” she said. “Native American designers were updating traditional ideas and making them their own.”

 

She wanted to curate an exhibit to showcase these innovative, pioneering Native fashion designers whose high-energy works break traditional boundaries with materials and invention that go far beyond the stereotypic buckskin, feathers, beads and fringe. “Contemporary Native fashion designers are dismantling and upending familiar motifs, adopting new forms of expression and materials, and sharing their vision of Native culture and design with a global audience,” Kramer said.

 

Kramer’s dream is now a reality with her curated show, “Native Fashion Now”, at PEM through March 6. Over two years in the planning, it is the first full-scale exhibit to chronicle the contemporary Native American fashion movement over the past 60 years. The show features over 70 artists and after debuting at PEM, will travel for two years to Oregon, Oklahoma and the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian in New York City.

 

One of the most unusual aspects of “Native Fashion Now” is the fact that of the 74 artists exhibited, 71, or 95 percent, are living.

 

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Orlando Dugi (Dine Navajo). Photo by Shelley A. Sackett

 

With over 100 garments, shoes, pocketbooks, jewelry, scarves and accessories displayed on 40 mannequins, the exhibit feels like a Native American “Project Runway”- which, in a way, it is. Fans of the television show may recognize the white leather sheath dress that greets visitors on their arrival inside the exhibit. It is the one designed by Patricia Michaels, the Taos Pueblo artist who was the first Native American contestant on the reality TV hit show in 2013. The judges loved the dress, which Michaels hand painted with an abstract New York skyline.

 

Michaels is delighted that mainstream fashion lovers are embracing Native American design. “We don’t have to be stuck in this gunny sack look anymore,” she said with a smile. Kramer said that the groundbreaking Michaels’ work was the most fitting way to kick off the exhibition, and commissioned her to design the cascading parasols that lead up to the show’s entrance.

 

The exhibition’s four galleries — Pathbreakers, Revisitors, Activators and Provocateurs — reflect how designers respond to ideas and trends in the world of Native fashion. All take us to similar places, far away from buckskin and fringe, especially Provacateurs, whose departure from convention makes works that are experimental and one-of-a-kind.

 

Lloyd “Kiva” New, the Cherokee designer and first true “Pathbreaker”, blazed a trail with his delicate shirtwaist dresses. Their display pays homage to the designer’s 1950s creation of his high-fashion brand, the first Native American to do so. Their timeless style is just as fresh today.

 

Activators, who embrace an everyday, personal style that engages with today’s trends and politics, are represented in the third gallery by street wear, skates and a pop culture liveliness. Navajo Jared Yazzie’s bold T-shirt with “Native Americans Discovered Columbus” emblazoned on its front turns the familiar saying on its head by encouraging people to think about the truths of history.

 

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Pat Pruitt (Laguna Pueblo) and Chris Pruitt (Laguna Pueblo/Chiricahua Apache). Belt buckle, 2012. Stainless steel, silver,Teflon, turquoise, and coral. © 2015 Peabody Essex Museum. Photography by Walter Silver.

 

Jeweler and metal smith Pat Pruitt, a member of the Laguna Pueblo, was trained as a mechanical engineer and worked in the body piercing industry before starting to make jewelry in the 1990s. His use of non-precious metals, like titanium, zirconium and stainless steel, creates pieces that are radically different from the traditional Native turquoise and silver jewelry.

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Jewelers Kristen Dorsey (Chicksaw) and Pat Pruitt (Pueblo) at the PEM “Native Fashion Now” opening.

 

 

Pruitt told the story (repeated by most of the artists who were present at the show’s press opening) about how his creations were not allowed into Native American art shows because they were “not Native enough.” He praised Kramer’s vision in creating the opportunity to showcase the individuality of the Native designer in the context of their tribal identity. “The Native art world wants me to fit in with their stereotype,” he said, pausing. “But individuality and self expression is part of our tradition.

 

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Jamie Okuma (Luiseño/Shoshone-Bannock). Boots, 2013–14. Glass beads on boots designed by Christian Louboutin. Museum commission with support from Katrina Carye, John Curuby, Dan Elias and Karen Keane, Cynthia Gardner, Merry Glosband, and Steve and Ellen Hoffman, 2014.44.1AB. © 2015 Peabody Essex Museum. Photography by Walter Silver.

 

Although Shoshone-Bannock Jamie Okuma’s beaded boots, commissioned for the exhibition, are riveting in their intricacy and beauty, they are not focus of the “Revisitors” gallery, named for the artists’ fresh, new and expanded take on tradition. Rather, it is the two pieces by non-Native designers — Ralph Lauren and Isaac Mizrahi — Kramer included in order to spark conversation about cultural appropriation and borrowing that draw the audience’s attention.

 

“It’s a complex topic,” Kramer said, noting that some mainstreamers feel that certain Native American cultural icons should be off limits to non-Native designers. For example, Mizrahi’s flannel gown, embroidered as the totem pole that honors North West Native families, could be viewed as offensive by traditionalists. On the other hand, his use of a sacred Native icon could be viewed as mainstream fashion’s acceptance of Native American design, using new materials to update a traditional idea and create something entirely new. “It’s meant to open a dialogue,” Kramer explained, clearly delighted that her inclusion of the piece in the exhibit had already done just that.

 

While the dynamic and lively exhibit shines a light on what Kramer has called a “Native American fashion renaissance”, the real spotlight is on the individuality of these contemporary designers’ inspirations as they reference their tradition while transcending culture and stereotyping. “We can choose whether we present our culture in our art and what that art means to us,” said Pruitt. “PEM is a museum that recognizes individuality. They get it,” added Michaels.

 

Pictured at top:

Orlando Dugi (Diné [Navajo]). Cape, dress, and headdress from “Desert Heat” Collection, 2012. Paint, silk, organza, feathers,beads, and 24k gold; feathers; porcupine quills and feathers. Courtesy of the designer, Sante Fe. Hair and makeup: DinaDeVore. Model: Julia Foster. Photography by Unék Francis.

Native Fashion Now runs through March 6 at the Peabody Essex Museum, 161 Essex St., Salem. For more information, visit pem.org.

 

 

Spotlight on the Massachusetts Solar Industry

By Shelley A. Sackett

If it seems that solar panels are suddenly appearing in greater numbers than ever before, it’s because they are.

“We’re definitely seeing a lot more activity,” said Tom Dowd, who has owned North Shore Solar and Wind Power in Beverly for nine years, installing commercial and residential wind systems.

These immediately recognizable rooftop systems harness the sun’s energy and produce electricity. They enhance sustainability, reduce pollution, lower the costs of mitigating global warming, and keep fossil fuel prices lower, according to the International Energy Agency.

They also have a more immediate, less altruistic purpose: they save the average homeowner money.

“What’s really helping are the renewable energy credits,” Dowd said, noting that the average system can be paid off in five to six years. “When you look to sell your house and you have a solar system already installed, the person buying your house gets a free solar system and lower electric bills. That’s a real benefit for the homeowner.”

The typical Massachusetts household paid $875 for electricity last year, according to the Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs. EnergySage, the Massachusetts-based online marketplace, estimates that homeowners whose monthly electric bill is $100 and who purchase and install a rooftop solar system would save almost $36,000 over the next 20 years. Furthermore, the cost of installing a system, after tax credits, rebates and incentives, has dropped 30 percent since 2009.

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There are three routes available to consumers wanting to go solar: purchasing panels, leasing the panels and, where available, contracting with a solar farm in your area to buy solar electricity at a discounted rate.

To buy and install the panels for a 5.13-kilowatt-per-hour system, the average household need, costs between $18,000 and $25,000 according to Vikram Aggarwal, EnergySage’s founder and chief executive. After all the current tax credits and rebates, the net cost is closer to $14,000 for a system that will last from 20 to 30 years and pay for itself in fewer than ten years.

In the alternative, for a monthly fee and agreement to a long-term contract, consumers who can’t or don’t wish to make that kind of up front financial investment can lease a solar system from a solar company that will install the panels at no cost and maintain them in return for ownership of the panels and the accompanying tax credits and rebates. The homeowner gets to use the electricity the solar panels produce.

Even apartment and condo dwellers can get in on the solar action by finding a solar electric company that participates in community solar programs. Some municipalities have programs to help their residents. The City of Salem, for example, recently selected ConEdison Solutions as the electricity supplier for its Salem PowerChoice program, its municipal electricity aggregation program that will provide Salem residents and businesses with a cost-effective, transparent electricity supply alternative to National Grid. Ipswich Electric Co., a municipal power plant, has been trying to locate a piece of property where the town could build its own community solar system. The town is also considering contracting with someone to build the solar facility and make it available to the Ipswich community, according to Donald Newell, Ipswich Electric Light Manager.

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Massachusetts is a shining star in the national renewable energy arena. In 2014, the state ranked fourth of the top ten solar states in the country. There are currently more than 391 solar companies at work throughout Massachusetts, employing over 9,400 people, according to Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA). In 2014 alone, $791 million was invested on solar installations in the Commonwealth, an increase of one percent over 2013. There is currently enough solar energy installed in the state to power 140,000 homes.

So why haven’t all homeowners and all municipalities jumped on the solar bandwagon? The answer is complicated and, according to some, political.

Governmental support of solar energy started in earnest in 2005, when the United States established a 30 percent federal tax credit for residential solar-electric installation expenses. In 2008, Massachusetts enacted the Green Communities Act, a cutting-edge legislation intended to make the state a national leader in clean energy technology by boosting energy efficiency and encouraging investment in renewable energy.

Among the incentives Massachusetts mandated were solar tax credits, net metering and solar renewable energy certificates (SRECS), all meant to entice consumers and utility companies to embrace renewable energy. Net metering is the practice of selling the excess solar energy a homeowner generates back to the electric grid for credit on a future electric bill, the biggest long range financial incentive for installing residential solar panels. SRECs are certificates homeowners earn and can sell every time they generate solar energy. Because utilities are mandated to derive a percentage of their electricity from solar and other renewable sources, utilities buy SRECs to fulfill this legal requirement.

In essence, when the sun shines and your solar panels produce more electricity than you consume, you are literally able to save for a rainy (or snowy or cloudy) day.

The 2008 law set a statewide goal to generate 400MW of solar generated electricity by 2017. Massachusetts surpassed that goal four years early, in 2013 and the legislature set a new goal of 1.6GW by 2020. Because solar energy is so popular in Massachusetts, net metering caps do not align with these goals, and the legislature has had to act three more times to raise the net metering caps so that consumers can count on the utilities having to buy back their excess solar-produced electricity. In some utility areas, the 2020 caps are expected to be reached by 2015, according to SEIA.

The problem with this seemingly perfect green scenario is that the federal tax credit is set to expire December 31, 2016 and the future of the state’s net metering policy is anything but settled as the House and Senate lawmakers toil to update the state’s energy laws this session.

Last August, the House passed Governor Baker’s proposed H.B. 3724 (“An Act Relative to a Long-term, Sustainable Solar Industry”), which looks to lift and expand the cap on solar net metering and protect ratepayers, and provide long-term stability to the solar industry. The bill immediately expands the net metering cap by 40 percent for public entities and 50 percent for private entities and empowers the Department of Public Utilities to further raise the cap “when it is in the public interest to do so.”

The biggest boon for those trying to plan for long range projects is the grandfathering of all solar generators already receiving net metering credit for the next twenty years.

The bill now sits in the Joint Committee on Telecommunications, Utilities and Energy, which continues to hear testimony from scores of witnesses on all sides of the issue, from National Grid to Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation and dozens of renewable energy proponents. Mass Power Forward, a brand-new statewide coalition dedicated to fighting for a just transition to clean energy, advocates modernizing the power grid and empowering “everyday people” to access locally generated power. Among its 90 members are HealthLink, Ipswich Watershed Association, ICARE, GASSP and other local groups.

While House leaders have said they are holding out hope of completing a more comprehensive energy bill before the end of November, most observers are skeptical that will happen.

This uncertainty impacts everyone, from energy consulting firms trying to plan large-scale projects to municipal electric utilities, to large investor-owned utilities, solar panel installers and, of course, the consumer.

According to Donald E. Bowen and Richard E. Waitt, Jr., principals of Beverly’s Meridian Associates, settling the net-metering issue will open the floodgates on large-scale, free-standing solar projects. “There are projects being permitted all over the place. We’ve probably done 900-1,000 MWs of solar projects in Massachusetts. Next year will be the biggest year of all time,” said Waitt.

That the legislature is taking so long to pass a long term energy bill is particularly irritating to Waitt. “I suspect they’re trying to work on a bill that will have some legs and last for a while. This is very disruptive to the solar industry. It is very expensive to get these projects permitted, only to find out you can’t get them built,” he added.

Waitt suspects the power companies have too much say in the matter, needlessly rendering the process political. “In my world, what’s best for the environment, the economy, the country and the world is to put up solar everywhere and stop trying to be political about it,” he said with frustration.

Meridian Associates offers civil engineering, landscape architecture and renewable and sustainability consulting services, and has worked on renewable energy projects in 213 of the 351 cities and towns in Massachusetts. The company was recognized as Greater Boston’s 2012 Small Business of the Year, in part in recognition of “the sustainable practices that we undertake internally and our advocacy for the fight against climate change and the development of large scale renewable energy,” according to Bowen.

The company’s completed renewable energy projects, along with projects currently in the feasibility, design, or construction phase, represent over 75’s of solar power throughout Massachusetts.

Although in his professional life he deals in large-scale projects, Bowen has been a small-scale consumer of solar energy for decades. “I was the first applicant under the buy-back program in Ipswich to file an application for and install a 3 kilowatt system on my home when I lived in Ipswich,” Bowen said, noting that as early as 2009, he was charging his plug-in electric Prius with solar power.

However, when he and his wife Amy wanted to build a net-zero home, they chose Hamilton, which is serviced by National Grid, rather than Ipswich, which has a municipal electric light plant. (A net-zero home produces on site all the renewable energy it consumes.] Bowen chose Hamilton despite the fact that he found dealing with National Grid far more cumbersome and painful than dealing with municipalities. “The opportunity to go net zero or even net surplus in Ipswich was not something that they looked favorably upon,” Bowen said.

The reason goes back to the 2008 Green Communities Act, which did not require that municipal lighting plants contribute to the Massachusetts Renewable Energy Trust. The Trust funds MassCEC grant programs, rebates and other incentives. Because those financial incentives have been available historically to only those communities that contribute to the Trust, residents of towns that chose not to contribute do not qualify to receive the same benefits if they install solar panels as do residents of communities that are served by investor-owned utilities (like Western Massachusetts Electric Company, National Grid or Northeast Utilities) that do contribute to the trust.

Ipswich opted out of contributing to the Trust.

Regionally, the following cities and town are serviced by municipal lighting plants according to the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center: Groveland, Georgetown, Rowley, Middleton, Danvers, Peabody, Lynnfield, Wakefield, Reading, North Reading, Wilmington, Marblehead and Merrimac.

Although Ipswich chose not to participate in the Trust, it does have its own net metering program. According to Ipswich Electric Co. Manager, Newell, the biggest challenge going forward with promoting renewable energy is making up for the lost revenue to the town when residents with solar energy reduce their kilowatt-hour sales by using net metering.

“We need to find a mechanism for making up the portion of revenue that is associated with fixed operating costs,” Newell explained. At the moment, one such possible mechanism is a “Net Metering Recovery Surcharge” which would charge a solar producer a surcharge for their share of the fixed costs involved in operating Ipswich’s network regardless of kilowatt-hour production. “We’re trying to make sure we’re not having customers that don’t have solar subsidizing those who do for some of the costs that they still bring to our system,” he added.

Many of the region’s solar panel installers say that they are busier than ever and that customers seem unaware or unbothered by the fact the state legislature is behind schedule in setting a long-term energy policy.

Nonetheless, Waitt is worried about the energy bill pending in the legislature and the influence the investor-owned utilities may have. “What will happen if we get squeezed again? There are thousands of people in Massachusetts working in the solar industry. Right now we’re one of the top states in the entire country and we just have to find a way to keep it there,” he said.

For more information, go to: malegislature.gov/Bills/189/House/H3724; seia.org; energysage.com/seia; iea.org.]

MORE INFORMATION

Federal Tax Credit

The federal Residential Renewable Energy Tax Credit is a personal tax credit of 30 percent of qualified expenditures for a system that serves a dwelling located anywhere in the United States. The credit expires on December 31, 2016.

There is no maximum credit for systems placed in service after 2008 and the home served by the system does not have to be the taxpayer’s principal residence.

Allowable expenditures include labor costs for on-site preparation, assembly or original system installation, and for piping or wiring to interconnect a system to the home. If the federal tax credit exceeds tax liability, the excess amount may be carried forward to the succeeding taxable year until 2016.

For more information, go to www.energystar.gov/taxcredits

Electricity in a Nutshell

Watts are a measurement of power, describing the rate at which electricity is being used at a specific moment. For example, a 15-watt LED light bulb draws 15 watts of electricity at any moment when turned on.

Watt-hours are a measurement of energy, describing the total amount of electricity used over time. Watt-hours are a combination of how fast the electricity is used (watts) and the length of time it is used (hours). For example, a 15-watt light bulb, which draws 15 watts at any one moment, uses 15 watt-hours of electricity in the course of one hour.

Kilowatts and kilowatt-hours are useful for measuring amounts of electricity used by large appliances and by households. Kilowatt-hours are what show up on your electricity bill, describing how much electricity you have used. One kilowatt (kW) equals 1,000 watts, and one kilowatt-hour (kWh) is one hour of using electricity at a rate of 1,000 watts. New, energy-efficient refrigerators use about 300-400 kilowatt-hours per year. The typical American home uses about 7,200 kilowatt-hours of electricity each year.

Megawatts are used to measure the output of a power plant or the amount of electricity required by an entire city. One megawatt (MW) = 1,000 kilowatts = 1,000,000 watts. For example, a typical coal plant is about 600 MW in size.

Gigawatts measure the capacity of large power plants or of many plants. One gigawatt (GW) = 1,000 megawatts = 1 billion watts. In 2012, the total capacity of U.S. electricity generating plants was approximately 1,100 GW.

ucsusa.org/clean_energy/our-energy-choices/how-is-electricity-measured.html#.VkCZ3K6rSV4

‘Casa Valentina’ Is More Than Eye Candy

Above: Eddie Shields as Gloria, Thomas Derrah as Valentina and Robert Saoud as Bessie access their inner McGuire Sisters./ALL PHOTOS GLENN PERRY

By Shelley A. Sackett

Shelleysackett.com

With the gloom of daylight savings time and shorter, darker days looming around the bend, we should say a double “Hosanna” for SpeakEasy Stage Company’s six-week run of “Casa Valentina”, Harvey Fierstein’s Tony-nominated play that is about much  more than cross-dressing and visual gags.

“Casa Valentina” is a flawless production, from its across-the-board inspired acting and directing, to its funny and thought-provoking script. Before the house is even dark, the ukulele music and whimsical setting clue us that we are in for an enjoyable ride.

The play was inspired by a mysterious true subculture of heterosexual transvestite men who sought sanctuary in the Catskills during the 1960’s at the real-life hidden refuge, “Casa Susanna”. There, they could literally let their hair down, wearing wigs, heels, makeup and jewelry. A treasure trove of photographs discovered by a furniture dealer in a Manhattan flea market and published in a 2005 book showed the secretive world of men lounging around, playing cards and socializing — all while dressed as women.

A group of producers approached Fierstein, one of America’s first openly gay major celebrities, about writing a play based on the retreat. The author and Tony-award winning actor and playwright of “Kinky Boots”, “La Cage aux Folles” and “Torch Song Trilogy” agreed.

Metamorphosis at the Chevalier d'Eon.

Metamorphosis at the Chevalier d’Eon.

Janie Howland’s pleasing, rambling set is the 1960s Chevalier d’Eon, a homey Catskills resort of bungalows named after a French transvestite spy. The Chevalier caters to a group of “regulars”, married city-men with straight lives and straight jobs, who convene in the tranquility of the retreat to dress and behave like women. These gatherings are vacations in more ways than one; “Being a boy is my day job,” laments one. The masculine pronoun is banished from conversation, the booze flows freely and the Oscar Wilde quotes are darts that never miss the bull’s eye.

Thomas Derrah as George/Valentina and Kerry A. Dowling as Rita share a tender marital moment.

Thomas Derrah as George/Valentina and Kerry A. Dowling as Rita share a tender marital moment.

The wife and husband proprietors, Rita and George (also known as Valentina), are equally devoted to providing a safe place where transvestites have the freedom to explore their feminine sides and enjoy the camaraderie and fun of their soul sisters. Rita, played by Kerry A. Dowling with warmth, substance and a lot of heart, is a wig stylist who met George when he brought his sad, straggly wig into her shop for repair. She loves the “girls” and is almost saintly in her support for her husband. [Thomas Derrah, as Valentina/George, is superb].

Jonathan, a masculine, shy and bookish thirty-something, is a first time guest at the Chevalier; in fact, it is his first time ever dressing as a woman in public. Rita takes him under her maternal wing and his transformation from nervous, cautious Jonathan to ebullient and prom-ready Miranda is heartwarming. It is also a hoot, with wigs, falsies and industrial strength foundations for face and fanny.

Thomas Derrah as Valentina (right) does a makeover on Greg Maraio, transforming him from Jonathan into Miranda.

Thomas Derrah as Valentina (right) does a makeover on Greg Maraio, transforming him from Jonathan into Miranda as Will McGarrahan (Charlotte) looks on.

Each guest is unique and yet similar. Bessie, played with sass and verve by Robert Saoud, only appears in drag. She is the Oscar Wilde-spewing quick-witted Ethel Merman wannabe. As Albert, he is a decorated war veteran who has three kids and a wife able to ignore him.

Gloria, played by the breathtakingly beautiful Eddie Shields, is the most sexually charged and self-confident of the bunch, slinking around and miraculously not breaking an ankle in those stilettos. Terry, a frumpy maiden aunt type, couldn’t be more opposite.

But it is Timothy Crowe as Amy, the alter ego of The Judge, a distinguished and politically powerful man, who personifies the inner conflict suffered by those who must live secret lives. Crowe masterfully lets the Judge’s underlying sadness and fear poke its head above the surface of Amy’s wit and conviviality.

Most of the girls have known each other for decades, and their affectionate and easy chatter and jibes are fun and funny. The lip sync to the McGuire Sisters in a makeshift cabaret reminiscent of talent night at summer camp is worth the price of admission.

All, however, is not worry-free in Paradise.

Valentina has been summoned to the local postal inspector to answer for some suspicious mail, which could have dire consequences for all of the girls, but especially for George. The Chevalier is facing equally life-threatening financial problems. Only Rita is aware of these troubles.

Enter into this olio of eccentrics the Californian Charlotte, a Chanel-clad button-down, buttoned-up disciplinarian reminiscent of George C. Scott as Patton. Charlotte publishes a magazine and oversees an organization devoted to the rights of cross-dressers, as long as they’re the “right sort” of cross-dressers; that is, as long as they are not homosexuals. Valentina has naively pinned her hope on securing a loan form Charlotte, but the price she demands proves too steep and threatens to tear the Chevalier apart in a far nastier, bloodier battle than would ever take place in bankruptcy court.

Charlotte’s silver lining is that she is the spark that spurs serious discussion about serious issues. In this age of gender diversity, “Transparent” and the newest reality show, “Caitlyn Jenner”, how one identifies ones self matters both more and less. The lines between gender and identity, sexuality and gender identification, and what is “acceptable” and what is not have never been more blurred. With the explosion in labels comes an explosion in opportunities to marginalize and be marginalized. Perhaps the most powerful message “Casa Valentina” offers is that the discriminated against can themselves be the heartless discriminators.

“Casa Valentina” is a romp and a good time, but it much more than that. It shines an unblinking spotlight on the underbelly in all of us, and dares us to ask ourselves a simple question: What is “normal”?

Recommend is too tame a word for “Casa Valentina”. If you miss its run, you will be sorry.

“Casa Valentina” will run until November 28, at the Boston Center for the Arts, 527Tremont Street in Boston’s South End.

For tickets or more information, call 617-933-8600 or visit SpeakEasyStage.com.