Speech and Debate, Berkeley

Written by:
Suzanne Weiss
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Speech and Debate

(Left to right) Maro Guvara, Jayne Deely and Jason Frank
in Aurora Theatre Company’s “Speech and Debate”
Photo by David Allen

By Stephen Karam
Aurora Theatre Company
June 11-July 18, 2010

Blackmail, betrayal, coercion and lies: it’s not your ordinary high school debate team, that’s for sure. Each of the three young members of the Salem, Ore., Speech and Debate Club has his or her own personal agenda. And each of them casts a glaring  spotlight on what people will do to keep a secret. What keeps “Speech and Debate,” Stephen Karam’s sharp, witty story of three kids and the Internet, from being just another story of gay guys hiding in their closets or pregnant girls dealing with unwanted consequences is a subtle subtext about how one is to keep things quiet in an age of instant messaging and media intrusion.

“Speech and Debate,” which premiered in 2007 at New York’s Roundabout Theatre, adheres to the old maxim that the medium is the message. The play begins and ends in a chat room. Throughout, news headlines, Internet messages and other wonderful graphics play on a large overhead screen (projections by Christina Novakov-Ritchey). When the principals are not messaging on the Web or talking into their cell phones, they are composing their online blogs (or reading those of other people). It’s a miracle they ever get their homework done. Although very funny, it’s a sobering look at how we live today.

Diwata (Jayne Deely) is the local drama queen who can’t get a part in the school play to save her life. But she’s not above trying to smear the reputation of the casting director in revenge. In her wacky clothes (costumes by Sarah Beth Parks) and wild hair, Deely is the engine that drives this play. Her energy is contagious and you’ve got to love her – although, like everybody else at Salem High, you probably wouldn’t want to hang out with her. Solomon (Jason Frank) is a good-looking, straight arrow-type who wears shirts with little alligators on them and blinding white sneakers. But things are not always what they seem and Solomon’s secret is eating him – and his super-Catholic parents – alive. He wants to be a reporter but the only topics he cares to write about – abortion, the possibility that the town’s mayor is gay — are verboten by the School Board. Diwata’s fledgling debate society (really a platform for her performance aspirations) becomes the only outlet for his journalistic crusade.

That leaves Howie (Maro Guevara), who has been totally, unashamedly out since he was about 10. In many ways, Howie is the most normal of the trio and, believe me, he’s pretty weird. Howie just wants to hook up and get through his senior year. Diwata wants to be noticed and Solomon just wants to be left alone. But somehow they become enmeshed in each other’s lives.

The excellent cast is rounded out by Holli Hornlien, first as a patient teacher, trying to explain to Solomon the reasons why he can’t write about sex scandals in the school paper and, later, hilariously, as a real reporter who gets in the game in order to further her own ends. “Speech and Debate” has a lot to talk about and before this clever playwright hits the “Send” button, there are some musical interludes (Billy Philadelphia, musical director; choreography by LiWen Ang) scenes from Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible”; and a fanciful look at the childhood of Abraham Lincoln. Thanks to all those laughs and crisp direction by Robin Stanton, it all goes by in less than two hours (without intermission). LOL.

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