Provocative ‘Speech & Debate’ Hits Intriguing Note at YSU

By J.E.Ballantyne Jr.

Sometimes the things we tend to think about and ponder the most occur through some irreverent and off-the-wall transmission of information. That can be said of the Stephen Karam dark comedy, “Speech & Debate,” which opened this past weekend at the Spotlight Theatre at YSU.

The play is a very topical look at a very disturbing subject. “Speech & Debate” concerns three teenagers and their attempt to expose a teacher at their high school who preys upon teen boys. A serious subject yes, but the presentation of it not only makes one think about the matter at hand but also to do so without having to squirm in your seat due to the subject matter.

All three of these teens seem to be misfits in one degree or another. We initially meet Howie (Tristan Kile) as he is having an online chat with an unknown party in an effort to set up a liaison at a future date. Howie is new to Salem, Ore., where the play takes place, and seems to be somewhat of a loner. Kile seems very at ease and natural in his portrayal of Howie.

Although there is no verbal dialogue during the online chat, Kile’s subtle reactions and fluid demeanor says much about his character. As we get deeper into the show, Kile’s talent really shows through as we see multiple layers to Howie’s character. Each of these actors must be adept at both comedy and drama in this piece and Kile shows those extremes with ease and finesse.

Matthew Ellis, who portrays school newspaper reporter, Solomon, is the apparent torch-bearer for decency as he argues with his teacher to allow him to do a story on the questionable sexual exploits of the local Salem mayor. In a passionate scene where permission is denied, he stealthily
maneuvers his way into exposing the drama teacher at the high school.

Ellis shows real passion in his portrayal of Solomon. His dialogue is sharp and you truly buy into his deep-seated need to do what he feels is the right thing. Ellis shows both considerable warmth and passion where the need arises for each. Of all the characters in the show, Solomon, grows and changes the most. Ellis navigates his way through those moments seamlessly.

Halla Henry plays a spit-fire little girl named Diwata. Our first introduction to her is during her podcast (effective but seemed to drag on too long) where we find out her total disdain for the drama teacher. This disdain has nothing to do with his reputation, but rather pertaining to her being passed over for the lead role in the school production of “Once Upon a Mattress” and the role of Mary Warren in “The Crucible” – a role she claims she was born to play. Henry is a real ball of energy and is never still even when she is sitting. She wins the audience over with her exuberance and total over the top scene where she portrays many of the characters in The Crucible
single-handedly. Her charm is infectious throughout but as with Kile and Ellis, she shows her dramatic side equally well when the time comes.

Lexi Cerny does two fine turns as the teacher early in the show and the reporter toward the end making each character different but memorable.

Director Connor Bezeredi has crafted a tight production which holds to Karam’s desire of showing each character pushing through their pain. The very minimal set by Todd Dicken and moody lighting by Nicolas Wix keeps things focused on the plight of these characters.

Oct. 4, 5 at 7:30 p.m.
Oct. 6 at 2 p.m.
Bliss Hall; Spotlight Theatre, YSU Campus
330 941 3105

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