L-R: Kayla Gorman, Matt McKinney, Linda Grass and Geoffrey Simon Brown in Northern Light Theatre's production of Speech and Debate at the Varscona Theatre on Tuesday April 6, 2010.
One of the funniest scenes of the season is happening nightly in Strathcona, in an inspired little cliche-buster of a play primly titled Speech and Debate. Three high school misfits, outcasts in three quite different ways, are rehearsing their original contribution to the "group interpretation" category. It's a hysterical number from a musical created by the theatre geek among them, based on The Crucible. Mary Warren, the accused witch from the Arthur Miller classic, time-travels to meet up with the gay, teenage Abraham Lincoln.
Just when you think the world has maxed out on plays about teen sex, adolescent angst and/or school spirit, along comes this shrewd, smartly eccentric show by the young American playwright Stephen Karam. And it cleanses the palate after a couple of zillion Footlooses too many -- mainly because it's a continually surprising, subversive combination of cynicism and heart, with a chaser of political acid, not to mention a certain riotous affection (well, tough love) for musical theatre.
As you'll see in Trevor Schmidt's beautifully cast and acted Northern Light season-ender, the characters poised on the cusp of adulthood emerge in real dimensionality from what seems to be a set of classic high-school stereotypes: the drama queen who never gets cast in anything, the gay transfer kid, the ultra-nerd reporter for the school paper working on exposes of closeted Republicans.
Briefly, they connect through the Internet to form a debate team and thereby out a drama teacher who picks up young guys online. But the chemistry of this dark comedy play is the tussle of conflicting motives, mutual suspicions, wariness and the combination of their own sexual secrets and the blackmailer's impulse.
Along with Linda Grass as the gutless teacher figure, Schmidt has assembled a trio of compulsively watch-able newcomers, who capture very convincingly the volatile mixture of late-teen certainties and doubts.
Anchoring the production is an explosively funny, complex performance from the startling Kayla Gorman as Diwata, the lonely but defiant theatre diva. Her podcast diary entries, in which she breaks into belted numbers of her own device, will make you laugh out loud.
The guys are excellent, too. Geoffrey Brown is the openly gay kid whose worldly scorn has layers. Matthew McKinney is the seriously nerdy would-be journalist, righteous in his zeal but virtually strangled by his own anxieties.
The indispensable multimedia whiz Ian Jackson makes it all work, on Schmidt's mosaic set walled entirely by Post-its. And Darrin Hagen avoids every cliche in his rocking sound design.
An evening to cherish.
SPEECH AND DEBATE
Theatre: Northern Light
Directed by: Trevor Schmidt
Starring: Matthew McKinney, Kayla Gorman, Geoffrey Brown, Linda Grass
Where: Varscona Theatre, 10329 83rd Ave.
Running: Friday through April 18
Tickets: 780-471-1586 or Tix on the Square (780-420-1757) or at the door