Stephen Karam’s Speech & Debate is not about finely formed arguments on subjects like abortion or homosexuality or politics, but of those formative years where boundaries are pushed, questions are asked and the line between childishness and maturity is oh so “glee”-fully blurred.
Drawn together by a sexual connection to a teacher at the school, Karam assembles a trio from the fringes of high school society. Nearly thirty years after John Hughes assembled his own group of high school misfits, Karam’s trio speaks to the current lives of teens in a decade of 24-hour news cycles, the ubiquitousness of online lives, and that bridge to adulthood that they are sometimes pulled across screaming and shouting.
There is Howie, played with an understated flamboyance by Scott Button, the “only gay in the village” who came out at age ten and has been searching in vain for a faculty advisor for his gay/straight alliance.
Solomon, played with intensity by Alex Rose, is the idealistic young man who struggles with his own sexuality while finding himself resigned to living out his remaining teen years in a home that thinks Exodus is the answer. While at times Rose’s intensity translates to being just loud, he does find his stride as the play progresses.
Stepping out of her musical theatre comfort zone and into a “straight” play, Jenn Suratos does good work in the roles of teacher and reporter.
And finally the biggest enigma among the group is the hilarious Claire Hesselgrave as the musical-obsessed Diwata, who manages to find an almost eerie balance between the lines of adolescence and adulthood. And even as Karam writes Diwata as the quirkiest of a quirky trio, Hesselgrave owns that quirkiness, never allowing her to become a caricature.
Director Brian Cochrane moves the show along at a brisk pace ensuring the show’s 100 minute (no intermission) run-time never feels sluggish. Hesselgrave does double-duty as choreographer and wait until you get a load of the interpretative dance she has put together.
Technical difficulties aside on opening night, Chengyan Boon’s projections are effective, especially in the scenes where we can watch Diwata’s podcast both live and as how those would see it online. Craig Alfredson’s scenic design works in the small Studio 1398 space offering four distinct performance areas and has the added benefit of highlighting the isolation of the three characters in their rooms which surround the central play area where they come together.
At times laugh-out-loud funny, Speech & Debate may not sway you in the end with any arguments on its weightier themes, but thanks to Hesselgrave’s performance and some clever writing it certainly doesn’t feel like detention.
By Stephen Karam. Directed by Brian Cochrane. A Twenty Something Theatre presentation. On stage at Studio 1398 on Granville Island through October 12, 2013. Visit http://www.brownpapertickets.com for tickets and information.