Set in Salem, Oregon, the better to facilitate those Crucible allusions, Speech & Debate brings together a trio of disparate, initially distrustful misfits variously shanghai'd into the activity of the title — a high-school staple since 1925. Bestudded and bechained Howie is a newly arrived gay student whose late-night foray into an Internet chat room, projected on a screen behind him, opens the play. Solomon is a zealous if nerdy high-school journalist hoping to turn Howie's inadvertent post into an exposé. And Diwata is a frustrated musical-theater aspirant channeling both her thwarted show-biz dreams and her complaints about the school's drama coach into a podcasted blog that catches the ears of the other two. Before you know it, the trio have blackmailed one another into the fledgling speech-and-debate club Diwata sees as yet another avenue for the determinedly dancing feet of her talent.
As you might expect, the three bond, though with a minimum amount of saccharin spilled and every step of their mutually antagonistic journey played out as an NFL-competition category, from "Lincoln-Douglas Debate" to "Declamation." Director Jeremy Johnson mines both the play's old-fashioned charms and its computer-generated ones, and Maureen Keiller brings her facial mobility and ace timing to an exasperated teacher and an opportunistic reporter. But it's Chris Conner, Alex Wyse, and Rachael Hunt who nail the floundering innocence beneath the teen characters' technological savvy. Hunt, in particular, proves both fearless and priceless as the theater junkie to whom Hamlet and Wicked are both masterpieces and no performance opportunity is to be left unturned. Gyrating in Puritan weeds and fuchsia tights, she's Shakespeare's Bottom without the ass's ears to interfere with transmission.
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