by SOPHIE KERMAN
When going to see a play about a group of teenagers out to expose a sex scandal involving a teacher, what do you expect to see? A heartwarming tale about finding social acceptance in surprising places? Or a sad story about the fallout of a traumatic and coercive relationship? No matter what your expectations, the Gadfly Theatre‘s production of Stephen Karam‘s Speech & Debate is guaranteed to defy all of them. By persistently avoiding the clichés of teen drama, “Speech & Debate” will have you LOL or ROFL (rolling on the floor laughing, for those not in the know) while at the same time asking you to consider what we do with the secrets we want most desperately to tell.
Such a feat would not be possible without the 100% commitment of the actors. Diwata – played with an outrageous lack of inhibition by Dana Lee Thompson – leads the trio of teenagers with the flair and desperation of a teenage drama queen, while Seth Gabriel‘s Howie strikes just the right balance between flamboyant confidence and a deep need for acceptance. Mac Rasmus plays Solomon as an endearingly late-blooming nerd, a choice which makes his character’s secrets even more compelling. There were some costume gaffes and a few fumbled lines on opening night, but the trio’s infectious energy actually made those slip-ups seem like part of the fun of the play. (After all, there’s no reason a 15-year-old wouldn’t have walked into school with his shirt on backward!)
Although all three teenagers have something to hide, director Immanuel Elliott has deftly avoided making his audience spectators to the shame of adolescent sexuality in a conservative town. Instead of grimacing at the plight of the three protagonists, we laugh at the obvious ironies of teaching modern students about their “bathing suit areas” and forbidding them to write about anything controversial in the school newspaper. These students have been forced to come up with a large repertory of survival strategies – as bizarre and wacky as they might be – in order to avoid the scorn of their peers and negotiate the school’s close-minded administration. Both the play’s cast and its director do an admirable job of showing the students at both their most powerful and most vulnerable as they challenge authority while keeping their dignity intact.
The Gadfly has kept its production elements down to a minimum, with a no-frills set that works nicely with the make-do attitude of its characters. But “Speech & Debate” is anything but simple. A play that resists neat conclusions and treats its subject matter with unexpected realism, this is not your typical high school musical. Although the “musical numbers” reduced me to tears of laughter and the play is stocked with some ridiculously quotable lines, I still left the theater thinking. Who knew interesting, edgy, real theater could also be so much fun?