Thursday, January 21, 2010

Speech and Debate - Seattle Repertory Theatre

Speech and Debate
Seattle Repertory Theatre
January 15 – February 21, 2010
Tickets and Information

Plays dealing with adolescent issues are nothing new, nor are plays dealing with controversial topics like abortion, sex scandals, closeted homosexual Republicans and censorship. What makes Stephan Karam's Speech and Debate remarkable is that it manages to confront all these topics without pretension, and without trying to be provocative or to shock the audience.

Speech and Debate revolves around the lives of three outsider highschool students in semi-conservative Salem, Oregon, each of whom has secrets, like any teenager. Solomon (Justin Huertas) is determined to be a reporter, writing an all-important article about the pattern of anti-gay Republicans being outed—most recently the mayor of Salem. Diwata (Erin Stewart) yearns to be an actress, but is continually passed over for the school plays. Howie (Trick Danneker), a gay teenager from Portland, just wants to finish highschool and leave. All three students are soon tangled together by their own secrets, blackmailing and bullying each other in attempts to get what they want—a chance to perform, a real article published, or just to have a normal senior year.

(L-R) Justin Huertas, Trick Danneker, Amy Thone, and Erin Stewart in Speech & Debate. Photo by Chris Bennion.

What makes this play sing as brilliantly as it does is the tight writing, fast pace, precise use of technology, and—most of all—the acting of the three leads. Huertas, Stewart and Danneker portray the lanky physicality, verbal tics and tenacity of awkward teenagers to perfection. (“That is my private journal,” Stewart screams with outraged indignation, when Huertas bursts into her life after finding her public internet blog.) Amy Thone carries her double roles as a teacher and a local reporter quite well, but the play truly belongs to the other three. They capture complicated and varying emotions without hesitation and with an enormous amount of humor.

The design also plays a large part in making this particular production work so well. Matthew Smucker uses his characteristic straight lines and flat planes to great effect in creating a sterile-looking highschool classroom, that feels like every public school classroom in the United States. Smucker also designs the projections that begin each scene, and set the quirky tone for the entire play. Matt Starritt's sound design—incorporating everything from Lady Gaga to “Thus Spoke Zarathustra”—keeps the pace jaunty and the atmosphere lively, while Christine Meyer's costumes enunciate each character clearly and, sometimes, hilariously. Andrea Allen's direction is light and swift, incorporating her actors' talents and her design elements into an engaging whole.

By the end, Speech and Debate hasn't solved large controversial issues, or even passed judgment on any of them. The value of the play lies not in shoving problems in our faces, or trying to be provocative. Rather, what works is its straightforward and hilariously honest portrayal of Howie, Diwata and Solomon grappling with their own problems—ones that we all recognize, whether we are their age or far older.

Review by Kenna M. Kettrick

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