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Posted Sep 28, 2012, 1:58 pm
Winding Road Theater’s season opener, “Speech and Debate” is a fierce little play. Built around three angry, isolated teens, it grows into a story of found community and transcendence. Directed by Christopher Johnson, the show channels its adolescent angst into very funny comedy, without being condescending. It ends with a dance scene that is hilariously bad and supremely badass.
“Speech and Debate” is being staged at the Beowulf Alley Theatre between shows for that company.
The play by Stephen Karam, unites a trio of high school students struggling against the limitations of life in Salem, Oregon. Diwata is a 16-year old frustrated thespian whose energy and ambition far exceeds her talent. Howie is openly gay (“I came out when I was nine”) with no friends. Solomon aspires to be a reporter, but his controversial choice of topics keeps his voice censored.
Thank god for the Internet
Despite going to the same school, the three meet, ironically, on the Internet. Diwata’s podcast rants rail at the injustice that the high school drama teacher won’t cast her in any lead roles. Howie is fighting his marginalization by cruising online. Solomon Googles everything and everyone.
When a gay sex scandal involving the town's conservative mayor becomes news, Solomon is blocked from writing about it in the school newspaper. Frustrated at adult hypocrisy, he goes after a more proximate target – the high school drama teacher. After discovering an anonymous chat between Howie and the teacher, Solomon tracks Howie down through Diwata’s podcast.
After meeting Solomon, Diwata knows that the issue is more personal. While hiding in the boy’s bathroom, she accidentally interrupted a sexual encounter between the teacher and a student, whom she now recognizes as Solomon. Not wanting to out himself, Solomon is looking for another victim to make his case and his story. Howie’s knowledge of one salient fact about Diwata allows them all to reach détente through mutual assured destruction.
Seeking an outlet outside of the drama club, Diwata organizes them into a Speech and Debate club. Perhaps organizes is too strong a word – she blackmails both Howie and Solomon into following her dream. That dream is a radical, rule-breaking performance before the school board, so outrageous that it will right wrongs, as well as force her talents to be recognized.
A Petty showcase
The production showcases the young talents of Lucille Petty as Diwata. Petty ricochets around the stage, her hair fiery neon-red, like some LSD-curated homage to Lucille Ball, coiffed into tight bangs and messy pigtails. Although the character is referred to as “frumpy” in the original play, Petty plays Diwata as the poster child for ADHD, bounding about, easily distracted, self-centered but not self-aware. Goofy and annoying at first, Petty’s Diwata quickly draws you in through her earnestness and over-the-top enthusiasm.
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Despite its casual appearance, it is a highly disciplined performance. Only a year or two out of high school, Petty has deliberately eschewed formal training at this point in favor of performance and experience. She brings a wild, reckless abandon to the role that would be difficult to attain as a learned skill.
Petty’s character instigates most of the comedy with her manic antics. In a moment of solidarity, she first invites, then cajoles, and finally orders Howie and Solomon to form a circle with her. As she hugs them together in a fit of self-ecstacy at her “circle,” Solomon looks at the three of them and dryly notes, “It’s a triangle.”
The show is accompanied by a punky, No Wave soundtrack. Indeed, the play epitomizes the No Wave aesthetic of being true to one’s self, disregarding given forms or rules, and valuing performance over perfection.
An active director
Johnson has skillfully incorporated this ethos of ragged edges into the production. Johnson has been particularly busy since leaving the helm of Live Theatre Workshop’s late night Etcetera program earlier this year. He has become a member of The Rogue Theatre’s newly formed Acting Company, starring in their recent production of “Journey to the West.” He was unable to attend the opening weekend of “Speech and Debate” because he was still on stage at Rogue. He has also been named co-artistic director for Winding Road. This is the first play he has directed for the company.
Evan Werner plays Howie and recent Tucson High School grad Emilio Zweig plays Solomon. Their performances are strong and sincere, though they necessarily pale in comparison to Petty’s. Amy Erbe adds minor roles as the only adult to intrude on this teenage wasteland, first as a prudish teacher, and then as a reporter who turns out to be painfully self-serving.
The play does indeed include the aforementioned rule-shattering performance by the three for the School Board. Choregraphed by Petty and Amanda Gremel, it is a fitting dénouement: hilarious and heartbreaking, deliciously bad and funny in ways you can not foresee.