By admin on Jun 25, 2009 | In ATW Reviews
A Salem, OR high school debate team provides with a means for students to expose issues considered too controversial for inclusion in the school newspaper, but when the student’s own secrets are revealed, censorship takes on a different meaning.
Such is the theme of playwright Stephen Karam’s snappy Speech and Debate running at TheaterWorks in Hartford. Budding reporter Solomon (Ben Diskant) wants to write about controversial issues like abortion and local Republicans who sponsor legislation to mask their private sexual practices (including the town’s mayor), but his teacher (Eva Kaminsky) squelches his plans, suggesting that he join the new Speech and Debate Club instead.
Club organizer Diwata (a dynamite Jee Young Han) convinces Solomon that the issues can be exposed through techniques used in debate, especially “dramatic interpretation, which not coincidentally will give this aspiring actress a chance to show the talent overlooked when she was passed over for leads in school productions of Once Upon a Mattress and The Crucible. The third reluctant member of the team is Howie (Carl Holder), a gay student who is a recent transfer to the school and who has incriminating evidence against a teacher who responded to his solicitation for sex on the internet.
The projected computer chat, Diwata’s hilarious karaoke podcasts and the physical settings of the school and the three individual teen’s bedrooms are ably created by set, lighting and sound designers Luke Hegel-Cantarella, Matthew Richards and Bart Fasbender.
When a news reporter (also played by Kaminski) begins to prepare a feature on the club, the students realize that their attack on censorship cuts two ways as they realize that their own secrets (Diwata’s abortion, Howie’s internet sex surfing and Solomon’s homosexuality) might be revealed even as they get what they want: Diwata a chance to perform, Solomon a chance to write a story in the daily newspaper and Howie a chance to find a sponsor for a Gay-Straight alliance club at the school. A bond develops among the students as they try to figure out what to do.
Director Henry Wishcamper keeps the pace moving and coaxes strong performances from the five actors, all making their debuts with TheaterWorks. Han, making her professional stage debut, is the standout as the obsessive-compulsive, self absorbed, stardom-driven Diwata.. The fit she throws over the guys’ “eclipsing her desire to perform with their ‘homodrama.” is a hoot, as is the dance she insists they perform where Mary Warren from The Crucible time travels to meet a sexually confused young Abe Lincoln, just so Diwata can do a striptease and use the body stocking left over from her ill-fated audition for The Crucible (John Carrafa provides the amusing choreography).
---- Lauren Yarger
Speech and Debate plays at City Arts on Pearl (233 Pearl Street, Hartford) through July 26. Performances are Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays at 7:30 pm.; Fridays and Saturdays at 8 pm. with matinees on Saturdays and Sundays at 2:30 pm. Tickets: General admission $37 for weeknights and matinees; $47 for Friday and Saturday evenings; center reserved seats $11 extra; and college student rush tickets are $11 can be purchased by calling (860) 527-7838 or by visiting www.theaterworkshartford.org.
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