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Theater Wed May 22 2013

Speech & Debate Speaks to a Wide Audience

Group interpretation, original oratory, extemporaneous commentary. These are some of the graphic titles projected to introduce new scenes throughout Speech & Debate at American Theatre Company (ATC). That may sound like a yawnfest for speech majors but in the hands of four talented performers, they signal funny but searing explorations of teenagers trying to sort out their identities. This is doubly tough in an era where online activities further complicate the growing-up process.

ATCspeechdebate-GB.jpgSpeech & Debate is written by Stephen Karam, whose play Sons of the Prophet will be presented by ATC in 2014. Karam and director P. J. Paparelli cowrote columbinus, recently presented by ATC and now on national tour.

Speech & Debate brings together three students in an Oregon high school who are misfits of one kind or another. They find they have similar interests in fame and free speech and determine to expose the online life of one of their teachers. Don't think of this play as a show for teens. The characters are not juveniles nor are they portrayed as adorable problem children. They are real people and the play's insights and commentary are relevant to theatergoers of all ages.

Solomon (nerdy guy who wants to be a journalist) is played by Will Allen. Diwata (frumpy girl who loves musicals) is delightfully played by Sadieh Rifai and Howie (gay guy who participated in a suggestive online chat with a teacher) is played by William Patrick Riley. Each student has something to hide and the play proceeds to reveal their secrets and acknowledge their hard-won identities. They rebel at school censorship policies and make fun of school programs such as the "stranger-danger" forum where students are warned not to let anyone touch them in their "bathing suit areas."

The fourth actor (Janet Ulrich Brooks) is double-cast as a sympathetic but firm teacher and a ditzy newspaper reporter, in an anachronistic getup. (Do reporters really wear pencils in their hair?)

Diwata's goal is to win the lead in a coming dinner theater musical and to show that even someone odd and frumpy can be a musical star. She succeeds in persuading Howie and Solomon to join her in the new Speech & Debate Club and they present a "group interpretation" of a story involving a character from Arthur Miller's The Crucible and a teenaged Abraham Lincoln. The three later dance in costumes that they strip to reveal Diwata in a nude body stocking and Howie and Solomon in flesh-colored t-shirts and boxers. The "bathing suit areas" for each are marked with black tape.

The dialogue is smart and funny and the actors do a good job of living in their roles. Paparelli keeps the play going at a fast pace for 100 minutes. The graphic scene projections and targeted lighting also help move the 12 scenes along.


Performances of Speech & Debate are at 8pm Thursday, Friday and Saturday and at 2pm Saturday and Sunday through June 23 at American Theatre Company, 1909 W. Byron. Tickets are $38-43 and can be purchased online. For more information, call 773-409-4125.

Photo by Michael Brosilow. Sadieh Rifai and Patrick Riley.

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By Nancy Bishop

Architecture critic Paul Goldberger talks about Frank Gehry's life and work in a new book.
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Best Feature Films & Documentaries of 2015

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