Steven J. Burge connects in Speech & Debate.
Steven J. Burge connects in Speech & Debate.

Stephen Karam speaks up for misfits in Curious Theatre's Speech & Debate

Three misfit high school students in Salem, Oregon, come together on the debate society. Solomon longs to be a professional reporter and wants to reveal the right-wing mayor's pederast activities in the school newspaper; Howie, a transfer student anxious to create a gay-straight alliance, is frustrated by his inability to get a teacher to sponsor it; and Diwata, a histrionic would-be diva, can't get a role in the school musical — a sanitized version of Once Upon a Mattress — so she's looking to bring down the drama teacher who failed to cast her, as well as the entire production. To do so, she's formed the debate society, which she plans to use as a showcase for her (very limited) performing skills.

You may think you've seen something like this before — geeky, outsider high-schoolers, tormented by questions of identity, setting up their own eccentric little world — but whiz-kid playwright Stephen Karam, who made a name for himself a couple of years ago when he co-wrote Columbinus, a play about the Columbine massacre, has a humorous and original take on the situation. Speech & Debate is peppered with spurts of genuine humor and pierced by little darts of surprise. There are also the usual allusions to teenage sexual confusion, pokes at censorship and depictions of the adult world's prudery, as well as its obtuse refusal to admit that teenagers have any sexual feelings at all. This adult world is represented by two characters: a small-minded, conventional teacher and a newspaper reporter anxious to simplify the kids' complicated travails into a smooth-voiced, slice-of-life National Public Radio story.

The teens are all interesting characters, spiky and self-obsessed as only teenagers can be, as ignorant about life's realities as they are technologically sophisticated and skilled at yanking each other's chains. They don't really bond in opposition to outside rejection as geeky kids in movies usually do, and they don't feud or fight in any sustained way, either. Instead, they use each other to meet their individual needs — manipulating, attacking or soothing as necessary. Howie, Solomon and Diwata are entirely at home in the brave new world of blogs, chat rooms, texting, Facebook and podcasts, but they suffer from all the roiling anxieties of adolescents through the ages, and their understanding of life comes primarily from the hokey truisms of pop culture. For Diwata, Wicked is a sacred text.

Getting in early on this sparky, original script represents a triumph for Curious Theatre, particularly in a season when so many local stages have been filled with tired and ancient fare. Still, the production doesn't entirely work; director Dee Covington has either allowed or outright encouraged an awful lot of overacting. Steven J. Burge keeps his footing as Howie because, as an actor, he has a knack for blending stylization with emotional honesty. He camps and sashays, but you know there's a real and very interesting person underneath it all, a boy as vulnerable as he is funny. Glen Moore's Solomon is more straightforward; his feelings don't seem to run as deep. But his modest contribution to the energy of the action is completely swamped by the hyper, over-the-top shenanigans of Laura Jo Trexler as Diwata. This girl is all over the place, mugging, hamming, incessantly moving her body. You can barely focus on what she's saying because she's acting so ferociously. Sure, Diwata is an extrovert, a ham, a narcissist — but you can play an exhibitionist without actually being one, and the trick is to show the human being beneath the ham. It's not that Trexler lacks raw talent: She's a vivid presence on stage, with a terrific singing voice and a lithe way of moving. She just needs to stop periodically and think about what she's saying — to understand, as all really good actors do to their bones, the transformative power of stillness and silence.


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