Speech & Debate

Our transformation from adolescence to adulthood seems to generate more awkwardness than any other time in life, which is saying a lot given the regularity with which we find ourselves uncomfortable in our own skin. In addition to hormonal swings that make the vicissitudes of the stock market look like child's play, teenage years are fraught with inappropriate and mean-spirited social pressures from peers and adults alike.

Laura Jo Trexler as Diwata
Laura Jo Trexler as Diwata
Photo: Michael Ensminger
In Speech & Debate, now receiving its regional premiere by Curious Theatre Company, playwright Stephen Karam grapples with these issues in a language and in settings and situations that speak directly to the besieged. Three misfits—Diwata (Laura Jo Trexler), a drama queen who can't get a role in the high school musical; Howie (Steven J. Burge), an adventurous 18-year old gay senior; and Solomon (Glen Moore), a sexually-conflicted journalist for the school paper—each with their own secrets, find themselves in the middle of a town sex scandal.

Conflicts abound in getting to truth: as Diwata notes, the school has a program for unwed mothers, but students are not allowed to discuss abortion in class or in the school paper; Howie is unable to find a sponsor for his gay and lesbian club, while the mayor of the town has just come out of the closet; and Solomon, who has inside information on everyone, is not allowed to write about it.

Steven J. Burge as Howie
Steven J. Burge as Howie
Photo: Michael Ensminger
Like Obama's historic election, Karam's play gives voice to the marginalized and emphasizes common ground rather than differences, making it a must see for high school students and anyone else sincerely concerned about the challenges our young people face as they come of age and come to grips with their innermost truths.

Despite a few slow scenes that tell rather than show, some plot convolutions that leave us scratching our head, and an ending that is more symbolic than synthetic, strong performances deliver a satisfying catharsis.

Director Dee Covington's choice of a veneer of hyper-realism for the three students, drawing inspiration from high school drama and indications from archetypal nerd personae, proves to be an effective stylistic tack that is sure to connect with target audiences.

Rhonda Brown as Teacher and Glen Moore as Solomon
Rhonda Brown as Teacher
and Glen Moore as Solomon
Photo: Michael Ensminger
Trexler's Diwata is an incredible piece of work, part lounge lizard, part idealist, part emotional chameleon; Burge's Howie is both manipulative and vulnerable, adult and child, and ultimately compassionate; Moore's Solomon juggles complexity and yearning in delivering the most transformational arc of all the characters.

The adult world intrudes in the form of Teacher and Reporter, both performed by Rhonda Brown, who appropriately injects a sense of realism into the hormonal hyperbole. Brown's straightforward, yet tongue-in-cheek, portrayals make the hypocrisy and cynicism of the playwright's "grown-ups" go down easy.

As we saw in this election, youth and idealism will be served, and just how that happens and how far it reaches depends partially on how adults listen and adapt. Speech & Debate certainly has a lot to say in this regard. It runs through December 20th at the Acoma Center. 303-623-0524.

Bob Bows


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