SPEECH AND DEBATE (Azuka): 60-second review

Rebekah Sharp and Bryan Black in SPEECH AND DEBATE. Photo by johanna Austin.
Rebekah Sharp and Bryan Black in SPEECH AND DEBATE. Photo by johanna Austin.

Azuka Theatre found a theatrical goldmine in the world of high school misfits with its 2012 production of J.C. Lee’s Pookie Goes Grenading, and finds rich rewards returning to this vein with Stephen Karam’s SPEECH AND DEBATE. Like Lee, Karam infuses the minor dramas of high school with the life-and-death importance which teenagers place upon them. He also sees that the issues we struggle with at early adulthood—identity, authority, unfulfilled dreams—hold enduring relevance.

Azuka’s production hinges on the manic liveliness of Rebekah Sharp, playing the manic and lively Diwata, a wannabe actor determined to set up a school speech and debate team because her need to perform has been thwarted by the poor casting choices of drama teacher Mr. Healy. She recruits super serious school reporter Solomon (Dane Eissler) and openly gay new transfer Howie (Bryan Black), who know some dark secrets in Mr. Healy’s past. The plot unfolds slowly over nearly two hours, but it’s not the dramatic twists which keeps us engaged, it’s the energy and committed zaniness of Sharp and the rest of director Kevin Glaccum’s cast of early career actors (Zoe Richards completes the cast as a teacher and a reporter). Highlights include scenes from Diwata’s outlandish musical adaptation of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, featuring a time-traveling accused witch Mary Warren and a teenage Abraham Lincoln. Yeah. [Studio X, 1340 S. 13th Street] May 6-24; 2014, azukatheatre.org.

Note: Azuka was forced to move this production from its long term home at the Off-Broad Street Theatre to Theatre Exile’s performance space in South Philly because new landlord, Liberti Church, refused to rent the space unless it had veto power over the artistic content of the plays. God can be a real dick sometimes.

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