You’d think by now that closeted politicians would have learned their lesson.  Vote consistently homophobic and people will suspect you have a secret to hide.  Troll the Internet or public restrooms and that secret will out you whether you like it or not.

That’s what you’d think, but think again.  Despite the considerable number of elected officials who’ve been caught with their pants down in decidedly homosexual acts, the great tradition of hiding in a closet of homophobia and denial lives on in these United States.

Luckily for the LGBT community, a growing number of young people (probably the great majority by now) are living lives in which being lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or questioning or having friends who are any of the above is as normal as blueberry pie.

Stephen Karam’s wildly funny Speech & Debate, now getting its San Diego Premiere at the Diversionary Theatre, points a webcam lens at three such teens up Salem, Oregon way, while at the same time making strong points about hypocritical politicians, “ex-gay” ministries, and the importance of coming out.

We first meet 18-year-old Salem newcomer Howie (Markuz Rodriguez), who’s been out and proud since the age of 10, at his laptop, surfing the Internet in search of sex with an older man, their getting-to-know-you chat projected on an upstage classroom whiteboard to hilarious effect.  Meanwhile, school reporter Solomon (Kevin Koppman-Gue) is attempting in vain to convince a teacher (Wendy Waddell) to let him write an exposé for the school newspaper on Salem’s hypocritical mayor.  The teacher suggests the school’s Speech & Debate team as a more acceptable alternative.

Howie and Solomon’s lives intertwine thanks to geek girl Diwata (Rachael VanWormer), first seen musically “vlogging” her frustration at not having been given a leading role in North Salem High’s production of Once Upon A Mattress. (The drama teacher is so conservative that Mattress’s pregnant Lady Larkin now “just really wants to get married,” something which the Rodgers and Hammerstein estate will not be happy about should Diwata choose to spill the beans.)

When Diwata posts the drama teacher’s email so that listeners can express their outrage at her having been denied a part in Mattress, Howie recognizes it as the one belonging to his trolling-for-teen-sex chat partner, and soon Solomon has joined his two geeky schoolmates in a plan to out both drama teacher and mayor via their Speech & Debate presentations.

Howie is the kind of 21st Century gay teen who’s never had trouble accepting his sexuality. While still a pre-teen, he wrote a story about time-traveling gay kid, complete with Biblical references and illustrations of his take on the tale of Cain and Abel.

Diwata has her own aspirations of theatrical greatness.  She’s writing an original musical based on Arthur Miller’s The Crucible which centers on Mary Warren (the role she’ll be playing, of course) and features melodramatic lines not found in Miller’s original, like “Try to hang me. See how strong my neck is.”

The three teens begin meeting to plan their Speech & Debate program, each with his or her own aim, Howie in hopes of getting support for the Gay-Straight Alliance he wants to form, Diwata hoping that her presentation will showcase her dramatic and musical “gifts,” and Solomon looking for a public forum for his sex scandal exposé.

In the course of their meetings, the trio discover (and reveal) a great deal about themselves and each other. Solomon, especially, proves to be much more than immediately meets the eye, and to have more in common with Howie than might have been imagined.

Gifted young playwright Karam understands teens about as well as anyone writing today. He particularly understands the contradictions of contemporary teen life, as for example when Diwata expresses her outrage at Solomon having read her online and therefore very public blog. “That’s my private journal!” she protests. The playwright is also possessed of an offbeat imagination, as in the skit Diwata has written for her and Howie to perform, in which a teenage (and gay) Abe Lincoln (Howie) and The Crucible’s Mary Warren (Diwata) meet (and duet) to Diwata’s original music and lyrics: “Boy whatcha doin’? Boy whatcha thinkin’?  Boy what’s your name?” “Abraham Lincoln.” (In Diwata’s skit, Lincoln plans to tell his parents that “I’m a little different, and that I love them, but I also love the way the Army men look in and out of their uniforms.”)

Over the past nearly two years, Diversionary Theatre productions have acquainted me with San Diego’s rich talent pool, and Speech & Debate brings three more gifted young actors to my attention.

VanWormer is an absolute wonder as Diwata, giving a performance so immediate, so full of teen fire and passion, so richly layered, so endearing, that her every moment on stage captures the audience’s attention and affection. Rodriguez creates a very real picture of a contemporary out-gay teen, warts and all. Koppman-Gue is a nerdy delight as Speech & Debate’s most conflicted adolescent, about to be sent off to “ex-gay” summer camp for the second time and still unsure about his virginity status. Under Jason Southerland’s assured direction, all three actors manage in the same breath to be achingly real and funny as all get-out.  Oh, and they do an intricately choreographed (and uproarious) dance number that earns audience cheers. Waddell is excellent too in the dual roles of teacher and reporter.

Scenic designer Ted Crittenden makes his Diversionary Theatre debut with Speech & Debate, and my advice to Diversionary is: Keep bringing him back!  Crittenden’s ingenious set turns a classroom into a café, a closet into a bedroom, and a wall into a bed, all the while maintaining a high school classroom feel. It’s possibly the best use of the Diversionary’s wedge shaped stage I’ve seen so far.

Everything about this production is first-rate, from Karin Filijan’s lighting to Kate Stallons’ costumes (just right for every character) to Nhan P. Pham’s sound design, featuring a soundtrack of just the tunes these kids would have on their iPods, to Rodriguez’s Cain & Abel drawings.  Bret Young is productions manager, Gwendolyn Fish is stage manager, Beth Gallagher is assistant director and designed the terrific projections, and David J. Medina designed properties.

Speech & Debate is yet another winner for the nation’s third oldest LGBT theater, and one that’s likely to charm audiences of any sexual persuasion and just about any age group, high school and up. It’s an entertaining two hours of contemporary theater that has a lot to say, and a funny, original voice to say it with.

Diversionary Theatre, 4545 Park Boulevard, San Diego. 

–Steven Stanley
March 28, 2010
                                                                           Photos: Ken Jacques

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