Exposing Life Through Debate

Sex scandals involving adults and youths. They are in the news far too much these days. But how well do we understand them, especially from the youth’s point of view? That’s the basic question explored in the 2006 play “Speech and Debate”, currently being presented by the Secret Rose Theatre in North Hollywood, which we saw last night.

Speech and Debate tells the story of three teens at North Salem High School in Salem, Oregon: Solomon (Simon Daniel Lees), an enterprising reporter and pro-life Democrat who wants to investigate sex scandal of the conservative mayor who has just been discovered frequenting gay.com; Howie (Matt Strunin), a gay teen who cruises gay chatrooms, and just made a connection with the Drama teacher at North Salem; and Diwata (Tiffany Jordan), an online blogger and high-school drama nerd with a grudge against the Drama teacher and a desire to form a speech and debate club. A podcast by Diwata hinting at sexual misbehavior by the drama teacher brings Howie out of the woodwork with his incident, and Solomon’s investigation of his story then brings him to Howie. This, in turn, all brings them to Diwata’s Speech and Debate club-a-bornin’. Whereas Diwata sees this club as the opportunity to perform the musical version of The Crucible that she wrote, it provides the framing device for the students to slowly tell their stories as Diwata works to convince them to participate. I’m not going to spoil the specifics, but suffice it to say that each of these students has sexual secrets to be revealed, and the desire to keep them hidden forms a bond between the three and propels the story to an interesting climax.

Each of the three principal cast members were very very good. As Diwata, Tiffany Jordan created an obsessed drama nerd: obsessed, that is, with Mary Warren of The Crucible and all the roles in high school musicals that she didn’t get. In fact, Warren and The Crucible are almost an additional character in the piece, raising the question of how much of the persecution seen these days are just witch trials fueled by hysteria and the desire for revenge. Jordan inhabited this character, capturing the craziness and the obsession and the burning desire to tell the story, as well as having a great singing voice. Instigating the investigations was Simon Daniel Lees as the seemingly straight-laced Solomon: Lees captured the repressed nature of this character well: you could see how he was obsessed with the story he was investigating, but you couldn’t understand why he wouldn’t give it up. The third character in the triangle, Howie, was played by Matt Strunin, who did a great job of capturing the sensitive nature of this young man who came out at the age of 9 (well, 10) in Portland OR, and is now in the more repressed community of Salem. As the show went on, you could see through Strunin’s portrayal how Howie became more confident in himself and who he was. Rounding out the cast was Nina Donato as the Teacher/Reporter.

The production was directed by Jon Cortez, who did an excellent job of bringing out these characters and making them realistic. Choreography (for this was a play with music and movement) was by Crystal Castillo. The set (designed by Mike Rademaekers, Jay Bienenfeld, and Jon Cortez) provided the basic school setting with, with alcoves on the side to represent student bedrooms. Jason Henderson’s lighting did a good job of illuminating the mood without distracting. A key centerpiece of the production were the video interstitials and the intrepretation presentation: the main video production was by Jason Henderson, with the interpretation presentation by Matt Strunin. Sound recording was by Simon Daniel Lees. Illustrations were by Ryan Fabian. Hallie Baran and Danielle DeMasters were the stage managers, assisted by Jason Henderson.

[ETA: They did a report on the production on the local NBC station. Click here to see the report on You Tube.]

Speech and Debate” continues at the Secret Rose Theatre through August 22. Tickets are available for $15 through Goldstar; however, you may be able to do better paying cash at the theatre directly when service charges are added: prices at the door are nominally $25 for adults and $10 for students, but may be less if you mention facebook.

Upcoming Theatre and Dance. Next weekend brings the August “Meeting of Minds”, which will be the last production at the Steve Allen Theatre and features Ian Buchanan (Adam Smith), Chacko Vadaketh (Ghandi), T. B. Specified (Margaret Sanger), and Jack Maxwell (Steve Allen). August 21 brings the last 81 Series production: “Side Man” at REP East. Currently, the only show ticketed in September is “Free Man of Color” at the Colony on September 4. Pending ticketing is “Leap of Faith” at the Ahmanson Theatre (September 11-October 24, Hottix on sale August 17; potential dates: 9/19, 9/26, or 10/10), The Glass Menagerie at the Mark Taper Forum (September 1-October 17, Hottix on sale August 11; potential date: 9/11), and “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” at REP East (September 17-October 16; potential date 10/2). It is unknown if there will be a September “Meeting of Minds”, and if so, when and where. The only show currently ticketed in October is “Happy Days: The Musical” at Cabrillo Music Theatre on October 30, but I’m sure some interesting productions will pop up. They always do.

As always: live theatre is a gift and a unique experience, unlike a movie. It is vitally important in these times that you support your local arts institutions. If you can afford to go to the movies, you can afford to go to theatre. If you need help finding ways, just drop me a note and I’ll teach you some tricks. Lastly, I’ll note that nobody paid me anything to write this review, and that I purchase my own tickets to the shows. In fact, I receive no remuneration for any reviews I write.