Review: Speech and Debate, the Stage Play

The Phoenix Theatre has a talent for picking relevant, entertaining and challenging theatre. This Indianapolis performing arts venue has demonstrated their exquisitely original perspective all season long, with no sign of failure in sight. The Phoenix Theatre’s Indianapolis arts offering, Speech and Debate, opened last weekend with a bang, presenting teen comedy with a dark twist. In the intimate cabaret theatre space in the basement of the Phoenix, Speech and Debate reintroduces Indianapolis people to the challenges of being in high school, of being on the outside and of hiding secrets through the wonder years of teenage-dom.

Lori Raffel takes her first stab at directing on a professional stage in the second to last production of the Phoenix Theatre’s 2009-10 season, and its a wonder that producing Artistic Director, Mr. Bryan Fonseca, didn’t give her the chance sooner. The Phoenix Theatre’s Speech and Debate is a hilarious on-stage after school special with an honest look at being a teen in the modern technological world. Solid comedic performances rarely misstep as three young actors attempt to balance candid performances of caricatured characters.

Friday night I made my way to the packed Phoenix Theatre basement, with tables full of Butler University students and alums ready to cheer on the three Butler Theatre students and former students, who star in the Phoenix Theatre’s Speech and Debate. On the flexible cabaret stage, four distinct playing spaces spanned the back wall of the cabaret. A simple scenic design created three bedrooms and a centrally located, flexible playing space giving each central character both a home base and a neutral meeting ground. Bright colors and Facebook pages easily establish the teenage world we enter into during Speech and Debate.

Scandal rocks to the small town of Salem, Oregon, as allegations of the Mayor’s sexual escapades with young boys fills the papers. When one young high school journalist (and social outcast), uncovers the trail of a promiscuous and possibly abusive teacher, his ambition to see his story in print leads him to depend on two other high school misfits: a tone deaf drama queen and a openly gay transfer student. But as this trio comes together to expose the biggest scandal in Trojan history, everyone is working an angle. It seems the only way for the threesome to break the story is to create the school’s first ever Speech and Debate club. Can this new club offer them the freedom of speech and expression that the school newspaper and the drama program have failed to provide them? Or will these outcasts remain on the fringes of high school culture?

Kelli Johnson steals the show as the bombastic, talentless actor Diwata. She is pitch perfect in this tone deaf role, fearlessly making a fool of herself in her introductory scene as she performs a live video blog with the help of her trusted Casio keyboard. Johnson plays the part of the fool throughout, grabbing laughs with her character’s brazen say anything attitude. Whether she is sharing a song from her original musical based on Arthur Miller’s The Crucible or bossing her fellow speech and debate team members around, Johnson elicits laughter by throwing herself whole heartedly into each of the bits written by playwright Steven Karam.

Johnson’s comedic ability is matched punch for punch with her ability to down shift to a lower gear. When it comes time for her character to delve into more weighty subject matter (of alleged abuse), she is 100% honest, present and believable. Simply put, Johnson is stunning as she easily sheds her clownish mask in one moment, only to play the jester once more in the very next moment.

Matt Van Oss offers an inverse compliment to Johnson’s performance in his role as the openly gay transfer student named Howie. He is the perfect straight-man (so to speak) to Johnson. Van Oss offers a real presence throughout the show, connecting to his fellow actors with an in tune ear and a focused gaze. Where Johnson offers comedy with honesty when it counts, Van Oss offers honesty with comedy when it counts. His understated performance never seeks to steal focus from the action at hand, willingly helping his scene partners to do their best work. Van Oss’s ability to help his fellow cast members shine, while adding meaningfully to the fabric of performance himself, is the mark of one very talented actor.

As the ambitious journalist Solomon, Mark Presto gives a measured and thoughtful performance. Presto shines in the beginning as his character pleads for total honesty in the education system, setting up the major themes of the play by demonstrating teens in this world as competent and intelligent people capable of discussing difficult subject matter. As he rails against the censor ridden school paper, Presto establishes the idea of “teenager” as half adult instead of the half child they are so often perceived as. But, Presto has perhaps the most difficult role in the show, shouldering a disproportionate amount of the plot’s meat.

Though Presto establishes his character as a perfectionist, his conflict as a closeted gay teen whose quest for perfection keeps him from his true identity fails to come through in his entire performance. Presto’s intentions and actions do not connect to his “big secret” throughout the first half, making the “big reveal” seem a bit forced and trite in a script that is anything but. But whether this shortcoming is Presto’s doing or the directors oversight remains in question.

Lori Raffel’s director’s notes read a bit like a diary entry, a thankful reflection of having experienced the process, rather than an illuminating article to help us understand her interpretation of Steven Karam’s play. However, she does clearly reveal her entry point for the script as the drama queen Diwata. Parts of Johnson’s wonderful performance should no doubt be attributed to Raffel’s total understanding of Diwata’s world view, having self admittedly been their before. In fact, it was quite clear that Raffel’s strength as a director manifested in her ability to nurture the strengths of her actors.

The reverse side of this idea reflects Raffel’s inability to nurture the weakness of her actors, and to place herself in the shoes of a confused gay teen who faced challenging, even troubling introductory experiences to being gay. Thus, Solomon’s character whose inner conflict can be said to catalyze the entire events of the play are left unfocused through the first act. It isn’t until these ideas surface in the script that the audience and Solomon this conflict. By then, however, it is too late.

Regardless, Raffel should be extremely proud of her first effort on a professional stage. From scene to scene, her work shines through in pacing, comedic timing and in working around technical issues. She deftly keeps scenes moving as her three central characters practice various categories of speech and debate. Whether Diwata, Howie and Solomon are facing off on stage or a pair of stage hands develop their own conflict during scene change interludes, Raffel demonstrates a clear and focused understanding of how to make an interesting script become and interesting play that holds our attention throughout.

The price of tickets to this one are worth the belly aching laughter alone. Don’t miss Speech and Debate at the Phoenix Theatre now through June 27 in the Indianapolis cultural district Mass Ave. Located in an Indianapolis theatre district, the Phoenix Theatre has prime Indianapolis real estate in Indianapolis downtown near a host of other Indianapolis performing arts venues including Theatre on the Square, the indyFringe Building, Comedy Sportz and the Old National Theatre (formerly the Murat Theatre).

Where there is great theatre, there are great restaurants. Before the show, treat yourself to a delectable dinner from any of these yummy Indianapolis restaurants. Whether its upscale dining at Agio’s Italian restaurant you are looking for, affordable Cajun cuisine at Yats Cajun restaurant your craving or gourmet pizza from Bazbeaux Pizza, Mass Ave has something for everyone. Afterward, enjoy cocktails at any of these refreshing Indianapolis bars. Stay tuned to Indianapolis News, Events and Information on Fun City for all the latest on fun things to do in Indianapolis. Get out in Indy and find some fun! Make the Circle City your playground.

Speech and Debate
Now through June 27, 2010

The Phoenix Theatre
749 North Park Avenue
Indianapolis, IN 46202