'Speech' Takes Refreshing Look at Social Media

Photo: Words are very unnecessary. In 'Speech & Debate,' playwright Stephen Karam, transversing between different media in the internet age, knows how kids think and talk.
David Allen/Courtesy
Words are very unnecessary. In 'Speech & Debate,' playwright Stephen Karam, transversing between different media in the internet age, knows how kids think and talk.

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You could call it "Glee" on stage, but that wouldn't do "Speech & Debate" justice. The final production of Aurora Theater's 2009-2010 season may not be the polished product on Fox but it takes musicals into a politically active terrain.

Clocking in at an hour and 45 minutes, "Speech & Debate" is the story of three Oregon high school students who navigate the sexual politics of their small community. The play begins with a projected IM chat log that outs the school's drama teacher trolling for barely legal men. As the recipient of these virtual advances, Howie is shocked but still game for the hook-up. Howie ultimately gets stood up by "[email protected]" (rather than a name drop, a genre one). Next we are introduced to would-be Bob Woodward, Solomon, editor of the school newspaper. Solomon takes his journalistic pursuit a bit too far when he alienates the paper's advisor with red-button editorials on abortion. The next scene gives the audience the lovely Diwata, a failed theater geek that vents her frustration about not getting a leading role with a hilarious podcast on her blog. While Diwata gets the spotlight in this segment, we see Howie and Solomon listening in on her rant. When contacted by Howie and Solomon, Diwata convinces the two to join her newly formed speech and debate club so that she can have a public speaking venue. The boys reluctantly agree, the caveat being that they have a stage for their messages. It's with this set-up that secrets start leaking, and the three main characters are set on a mission to expose the hypocrisy of their school and town.

If this all sounds a bit heavy for a play, its wit and musical comedy diffuse whatever tension builds over and over. Hearing Aretha Franklin's "Freedom" and watching the three dance with an excess of spunk is a treat. And the original musical numbers, featuring Mary Warren and Abraham Lincoln singing about staying in the closet, prompted hysteria in the audience. Playwright Stephen Karam knows how to build and deflate tension. It also helps that the production is segmented into 15-minute acts, named after the various speech and debate categories. This structural brevity makes the rather long play fly by and gives the work the pace it needs.

Actors Jason Frank (Solomon), Maro Guevara (Howie), and Jayne Deely (Diwata) give amazing performances in their Aurora Theater debuts. Frank plays his character with an anal retentiveness covering up a soft underside. The group dynamics have Frank verbally sparring with Guevara, as he plays Howie with a series of sneering uppercuts aimed at Solomon. But its Jayne Deely who stands out in "Speech & Debate," as her Diwata character is full of dorky precociousness. The single drag of the cast is Solomon's teacher, whose back-and-forths with Solomon are strangely punchy.

The other aspect of "Speech & Debate" that stands out is the work's successful incorporation of internet culture. Some purists may decry multimedia, the harbinger of theater's supposed death, as an invasion. But Karam's use of the internet to tell this story is integral to its success. This is how teens interact, and the play's examination of truth and secrets in the context of the web fits well into the overall work.

"Speech & Debate" offers an authentic look into contemporary teen culture that proceeds to tackle timeless questions of privacy and denial. Thankfully it wraps these heavy topics in a humor that sings true.

Troll for barely legal men with Derek at [email protected]

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