Latest LiveArts production spurs 'speech and debate'
Let’s be honest. It’s pretty difficult to point to a film, play or television show centered around high school that doesn’t present what is colloquially known as “our turbulent years” in a melodramatic, angst-ridden way — looking at you, Perks of Being a Wallflower. In truth, this is what I half-expected walking into the UpStage theatre at Live Arts Saturday evening to see the closing performance of Speech and Debate. By intermission, I knew I had been mistaken.
Speech and Debate is authentic. It’s contemporary. It nails that crucial element that so many contenders dealing with this same subject matter fail to grasp. Throughout the play, one character struggles to overcome a history of bullying, one character confronts her decision to have an abortion and another comes to terms with his sexuality — the characters face problems that teenagers face today in a believable fashion. The show isn’t afraid to replace lines like “I swear we were infinite” — What does that even mean, Wallflower fans? — with candid language. The message of the show is the need for a more open and honest dialogue — the importance of expressing true feelings and knowing when that expression is appropriate is the essence of Speech and Debate.
The title itself is a double entendre. On the surface, it alludes to the high school forensics team the characters join in an effort to express themselves. More importantly, however, it alludes to the simple idea of speech itself. What do we say? What do we deliberately choose not to say? What sets Speech and Debate apart in this angst-ridden genre of art is the honesty with which it explores these questions. The play shows what happens when we keep our mouths shut when we should have said something, but also when we speak a little too loudly when we should have stayed silent.
On a larger level, it explores the taboos about which we have chosen to remain passive. It deals expressly with homosexuality and society’s tendency to sweep the topic under the rug. It asks where the discrepancy in what we do and what we say comes into play. Why, as a society, are we so ashamed of issues — such as homosexuality — that we are unwilling to even have an honest conversation about them? Where is the speech? Where is the debate?
From a technical perspective, I found the acting to be high-energy and engaging. The two male actors and the single actress, all active in theatre at Charlottesville High School, had no difficulty carrying the bulk of the show. Though the play provokes thoughtful examination of several cultural issues, it by no means skimps on comedic substance. The atmosphere was quirky and intimate, an aspect of Live Arts that is difficult to replicate. I highly recommend supporting Live Arts regularly, and certainly seeing Speech and Debate if the opportunity ever presents itself again.