Saturday, February 13, 2010

No arguments with the Rep's Speech and Debate

The Seattle Repertory Theatre production of Stephen Karam's Speech and Debate, directed by Andrea Allen, is a marvelously entertaining presentation of a fantastic, witty script and provides some great opportunities for a trio of superb, young, local actors.

Erin Stewart as Diwata is at the center of the action from the beginning, when she concocts a musical podcast diatribe against the clearly clueless drama teacher who failed to cast her in the lead of her Salem, Oregon high school's production of Once Upon a Mattress. She becomes the leader of a small ring that includes Solomon (Justin Huertas), a cub reporter miffed because the school paper won't let him publsh his story of a sex scandal involving the mayor; and Howie (Trick Danneker), the openly gay, new kid in school who wants to start a gay-straight alliance. That's Stewart in the foreground, with Danneker (at left) and Huertas in the Chris Bennion photo above right.

Diwata is completely annoying; a bossy know-it-all who doesn't yet care what others think of her, and Stewart plays her with great flair and sensitivity and even a hint of vulnerability. Solomon is a total dork who is really pushing that story. "I'm a journalist," he says while sticking his digital recorder in everyone's face. As a journalist, he's not so hard-boiled; he gets out of sticky situations by declaring, "My dad is waiting for me outside." Howie is a little high-strung and nervous, and Danneker nails the character.

In the end, they get around the censors by forming a speech and debate club at the school. They present their story in a Group Interpretive performance ("Group Interp" is what the cool kids call it, Diwata informs us). Their interpretation of the story includes a strip and dance to Diwata's original composition. OK, they're wearing flesh-colored body stockings, but I bet they got the school board's attention.

The three manage to take us through a discussion of teenage angst and sexuality, free speech, politics, and fighting with "the man" without scaring away everyone over 23. In fact, they draw us in with wonderful performances of this funny and touching script.

The show is free of adults save for Amy Thone, who plays both the weary journalism teacher at the school, and the local NPR reporter who does a story on the team and promises Solomon she'll try to get his story into the Oregonian -- which we're sure she'll do if she can just stop plugging the new edition of her book for a minute.

Stewart has earned some measure of appreciation on the Weisenheimer pages for being the author of the incredibly sick Mr. Jibbers, performed at last summer's 14/48 festival and for which Stewart earned a Wisey nomination for best writer. Danneker played the title role in Picasso at the Lapin Agile last year at Balagan Theatre.

Speech and Debate is a great production. We're a little worried that it's a hidden treasure, as there were way too many empty seats in the Rep's Leo K Theatre at Friday night's performance. It runs through Feb. 21, so get out there and see it while you can!

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