Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Capital Stage challenges with Speech & Debate

l to r: Matthew Rogozinski, Benjamin Ismail, Lindsay Carter.

Char Crail Photo

Artistic Director Stephanie Gularte continues to stimulate Capital Stage audiences with fresh and provocative plays. The current trend seems to be offerings by bright and youthful playwrights. In July we were stunned by Reina Hardy’s “Erratica,” written when the playwright was 20. Now on stage is the edgy and offbeat “Speech & Debate” by Stephan Karam. Though barely 30, he has already distinguished himself off Broadway, with a film of the show coming up.

The play is about a trio of contemporary high school students in Salem, Oregon. The theater’s release refers to them as “teenage misfits,” though the script itself suggests that they’re typical of the school population. They’re sexually savvy and brutally frank, despite a coy official admonition that “children should not be asked to touch anybody in the areas of the body that would be covered by a bathing suit.” What we get is something like a surreal view of what might be the inner lives of adolescents.

The play opens with an on-screen projection of a flirtatious internet chat between two unseen characters, codenamed BIGUY and BLBOI. The former is the mayor; the latter turns out to be Howie (Benjamin T. Ismail), a gay student. But their identities are not yet revealed.

We then jump to an exchange between a teacher (Katie Rubin, in one of several roles) and Solomon (Matthew Rogozinski) a reporter for The Trojan, the school newspaper. Passionate about his journalistic calling, Solomon has unearthed evidence against the mayor. “The facts are,” he says, “that he’s a right-wing Republican, an opponent of gay rights and is now accused of having secret online relationships with several teenage boys.” But the canny teacher squelches the story, because its evidence is slender.

Later we meet the third member of the trio, Diwata, singing to her own composition at her Cassio keyboard and embittered because her “talentless drama teacher” failed to cast her in “Once upon a Mattress.” She calls him “a crap sandwich” and a “gay guy with a receding hairline.

Each of the three students strives to develop a power base. Solomon pushes the influential power, however limited, of his task as a reporter. Diwata tries to develop a “Speech and Debate” team but Solomon is the only student who shows up at the first meeting. He refuses to join because he has no interest in public speaking. Howie bemoans his lack of success in finding “a teacher to be the advisor of the Gay/Straight alliance.”

After revealing that she wore a nude bodystocking during an audition, Diwata explains her motives for trying to become an actress: “To take a risk, to get noticed.” When Solomon expresses his own ambition to be a writer, she answers, “Yeah, but you’ll never hit it big if you keep pursuing stories you can’t get published.” Howie seems to have no ambition beyond becoming acceptable though gay.

Soloman finally achieve a modest, though ironic, success after attracting Jan Clark (Rubin) a reporter from the Oregonian, who gets radio time the evil deeds Solomon unearthed–then uses it to plug her own book.

Though the dialog is sometimes blunt in its sexuality, there is no nudity. The closest we get is a dance scene where the men strip to their underwear and Carter reveals herself in the bodystocking.

Stephanie Gularte directs, with an efficient set design by Jonathan Williams, plus costume design by Rebecca Redmond.

“Speech & Debate” continues through November 8 at the Delta King Theatre, 1000 Front Street in Old Sacramento. Performances are Thursday and Friday at 8 p.m. (tickets $25), Saturday at 7 p.m. (tickets $29) and Sunday at 2 p.m. (tickets $25). For tickets or details call (916) 995-5464 or go to http://www.capstage.org/.

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