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A CurtainUp Berkshire Review
Speech and Debate

"You read my blog, that's my private journal!"— Diwata
speech & debate
Betsy Hogg (photo: Justin Allen)
Want to get the younger generation into theaters? Stage more plays like Stephen Karam's Speech and Debate. Get the parents in as well and voila! real dialogue may ensue.

Barrington Stage's zany and endearing production confirms what has been suspected for years. . . namely, that adolescents have a strong sense of their sexual selves and are finely attuned to the hypocrisy of the world around them. This belies the fact that most parents are in denial and insist that no matter what others are dong, their children alone are not involved in sexual, alcohol or drug experimentation. Or that they are on to Adult Adult dissembling.

The play's three energetic adolescents —Betty Hogg (Diwata,) Ben Getz (Solomon) and Austin Davidson (Howie)— own the stage in this dark comedy about teenagers on the cusp of adulthood. It's a world where internal heightened sense of angst nurtured in isolation creates the drama that most kids are wont to wallow in during this rough transition.

The St. Germain Stage is the perfect intimate setting where a prototype sterile classroom with historical posters is the perfect simulation of the benign banality of most high school learning centers. Utilitarian and spare, it is a wonder that kids emerge from 12 years of this dreary décor to have any imagination whatsoever.

Howie opens the show texting on the two large screens above the set to a potential pick-up in a gay chat room. Out since he was ten, he knows the score and appears experienced in the world of Internet cruising. Newly moved to Salem, Oregon, filled with "liberal Puritans," he is far more experienced and secure in his sexual identity than many other students his age. His only way of coping with the holding pen of high school is to try to start a gay/straight alliance. But no one will serve as advisor. Davidson's Howie is adorably goofy and reticent about being the center of attention in spite of the dangers he has flirted with, in and out of the chat rooms.

Solomon, the buttoned-up super-nerd, channels his energy into the school newspaper where he is frustrated in his attempts to write articles about abortion and the town's conservative Republican mayor/sexual predator. Caught up in the duplicity which teens often fail to grasp as a convention of real world politics, he is squelched by a self-protective yet sympathetic teacher (Edelen McWilliams,) who is herself caught between mentoring and keeping her job. Getz' Solomon is annoyingly persistent and yet we are fascinated by his inability to recognize his own motivations hidden within his geeky persona.

Diwata is the lonely, friendless girl who does not fit into any of the school cliques where kids find solace. Intelligent, yet socially clueless, she creates a blog while in the privacy of her own bedroom, and through the use of a cheap Casio, she broadcasts her rants and original songs about the unfairness of high school. Unaware of her own lack of talent, she feels unfairly passed over for a starring role in Once Upon a Mattress. She focuses her agony on the drama coach, Mr. Healy, and plots to avenge herself in what she perceives to be a worthy cause.

How these three find themselves the only members of the Speech and Debate Club and involved in a plot to publicly unmask Mr. Healy creates a hilarious yet at times poignant show. We laugh at their antics and misperceptions— especially Diwata who places the show Wicked right up there in importance with Arthur Miller's The Crucible. In fact, Diwata has written a musical version of Miller's play with herself as Mary Warren, an accused witch who sings "Try to hang me; see how strong my neck is."

Though inane in her attempt to relate the truth of modern day Salem, Oregon to that of circa 1620 Salem, Massachusetts and those witches were being hunted, there is a fragility to her overwrought sense of self. It's hard to know whether to laugh or cry for these thwarted wannabes.

Diwata's musical, to be performed in front of the school board, is about a time-traveling Crucible witch who meets up with a young, gay Abe Lincoln; She has manipulated the boys to act as her backup group and the audience is breathless at its brilliantly innocent stupidity.

Reid Thompson's set, Burke Brown's lighting, Alex Basco Koch's projections and Palmer Hefferan's sound combine in a seamless accompaniment to Jessica Holt's sharp and well-paced direction. The actors do not push some of the more ridiculous teen ideas; Holt allows them to just say the lines with a naïveté that invites a natural flow of laughter in spite of the ludicrousness of the situation. Nikki Delhomme's costumes are the piece de resistance to the delicious gem of a show that is a refreshing examination of the adolescent spirit.

You have until July 29th to spend ninety minutes with these lovable misfits who somehow wind up on a higher plane of self awareness and acceptance after entertaining us with a great deal of hilarity.

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Speech and Debate by Stephen Karam
Directed by Jessica Holt
Cast: Austin Davidson (Howie) Ben Getz (Solomon) Edelen McWilliams (Teacher/Reporter) Betsy Hogg (Diwata)
Scene design: Reid Thompson
Costume design: Nikki Delhomme
Lighting design: Burke Brown 
Sound design: Palmer Hefferan
Projection design: Alex Basco Koch
Stage Manager: Paul Vella
Running Time: 90 minutes, no intermission
Barrington Stage Co., St. Germain Stage, Linden St., Pittsfield, MA
From 7/13/17; closing 7/29/17
Reviewed by Gloria Miller at July 19 performance

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