At Studio 1398 until October 12
Posted October 6, 2013
High school: the happiest years of your life. Yeah, sure.
Directed by Brian Cochrane for Twenty Something Theatre, Speech & Debate is geared more to the fifteen and sixteen-year-old crowd than to the twenty-somethings. But most of us have been there: teenaged, dateless on a Friday night and feeling too geeky for words.
That’s where we find Diwata (Claire Hesselgrave) fiercely blogging away on her laptop in her bedroom. As a performer, Hesselgrave is a sparkplug that keeps Speech & Debate firing on all cylinders for ninety uninterrupted minutes. Absolutely fearless, Hesselgrave could hardly be more emotionally naked than if she were actually naked. She sings – really well – and I’ll bet when she’s not trying to dance like a dork, that she can really move it. Great music in this production is a bonus.
Written by Stephen Karam in 2006 and premiering off-Broadway in 2007, Speech and Debate begins with chatline messages projected on a screen for us to read as they fly back and forth between an unseen older man and onstage Howie (Scott Button), a new kid in Diwata’s highschool. Uh-oh, older man turns out to be one of the teachers at Howie’s school. End of chat.
Solomon (Alex Rose), another student at the school and a would-be reporter, also has experience with this same teacher who has touched him – in the boys’ bathroom – in what is coyly referred to in the school’s sex ed manual as the “bathing suit area” of his body. Diwata, avoiding the popular, pretty girls by using the boys’ washroom, witnessed the encounter.
Fearless Hesselgrave plays fearless Diwata who never gets chosen for the school musical and so is writing her own musical based on The Crucible which has a parallel in Diwata’s life: she lives in Salem, Oregon; The Crucible is set in Salem Massachusetts.
Lively Jenn Suratos is convincing in two roles – a highschool teacher and, later, a reporter.
By threatening to ‘out’ Howie as a gay guy and to rat on Solomon who thinks he might have been complicit in the touching incident, Diwata coerces them into her musical which will be part of the National Forensic League Speech & Debate Tournament: Giving Youth A Voice which is, apparently, a very big deal in the US. Wait ‘til you see the encounter between Mary Warren (from The Crucible) and a young, fourteen-year-old gay Abraham Lincoln.
Speech & Debate is all over the place but so are these kids who are in a state of confusion over their sexuality, their politics, their place in the world. And that’s the best part of Speech & Debate: it’s a really honest look at what life is like for the kids that don’t fit in, for adolescents struggling their way into adulthood. It’s hard to convince them that in all likelihood, things will get better.
Of course, they don’t always.
But they do in this play. While Diwata, Howie and Solomon are not bound for the mainstream you get the feeling that with this much chutzpah it’s only a matter of time before they figure out that the mainstream isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.