May 18, 2009

The unbounded energy of youth
By Greg Boyle

The Unicorn Theatre has given its spring and summer over to shows about high school kids. In April and May, they produced a rock opera called Bare, and last Friday they opened a play called Speech and Debate. This approach is potentially risky, as the typical grey-haired theatre-goer (myself included) may not relate well to the issues and attitudes that seem so important to teens.

Lauretta Pope plays Diwata in Unicorn Theatre’s production of Speech & Debate, playing through July 12. (photo by Cynthia Levin and courtesy of Unicorn Theatre)

The Unicorn has always spit in the eye of convention, and dared the fates with its programming. I have to admit that I was a little nervous about the show, because I thought I might be assaulted with specious, puerile issues and hateful music. I’ve raised my children already. Let them pay a shrink to deal with their problems, same as I did.

I was wrong. The show is well worth seeing. It has drama with plenty of laughs on the side. It has a sound track of recent tunes that didn’t hurt my ears at all. And it deals with issues that will make the grey hairs want to bring their children and grandchildren. There isn’t even any cursing. It is a perfect play for a teenager who has never seen a play.

Stephen Karam, who, if we can trust his photo, is barely out of high school himself, wrote Speech and Debate. His youth notwithstanding; the boy can flat out write. His words ring true in every speech. The occasionally overlapping dialogue sounds exactly like what you might hear smart teenagers use. One of the wonderful things about the script is that you believe that high school kids are speaking it every moment, without it being awash in slang, trite phrases and euphemisms.

The plot is about secrets we tell and secrets we keep, and how we go about deciding which is which. It is structured in scenes that are named for events in a speech and debate competition, such as “original oratory”, “Lincoln-Douglass debate”, and “dramatic interpretation.” The titles make sense in the context of the play.

The characters are difficult to get to know because they hide their true feelings from the world. They are each lonely and outcast, and like most teens, totally self-absorbed. As a result, they are each obsessed with something they want to do. In their youthful exuberance, they alienate the very people they need to help them accomplish it. They slowly open to each other’s help as the plot unfolds.

The acting is first-rate. In spite of the callowness of 75 percent of the cast, we get premium performances from everyone. Kathleen Warfel plays the teacher and the reporter, the only adults in the show. Her teacher is dead on target. We can see her overwork, her desire to give the kids freedom. At the same time we see her wariness in the face of the politics that are present in every bureaucracy. Warfel does a good job of contrasting that with a slyly manipulative and ambitious reporter.

It’s the kids that we have paid to see, though, and they do their parts brilliantly. Howie, played by Tosin Morohunfola, is the most grounded of the three. Without Morohunfola’s steadying presence, the play could have spun out of control by its own centrifugal force. 

Solomon, played by Doogin Brown, is every nerdy kid who ever got beat up for being too smart. Brown plays him honestly and doesn’t pander to make Solomon loveable.

The non-stop show-stopper, though, is Diwata, played by Lauretta Pope. In truth, the show could be called a performance piece for her character. Pope is all over the stage, and all over the map with her rendition of a stage-struck drama queen. She sings, she dances, she clowns, she mimes. She relates directly to the audience. It is a wonder to watch. Her energy is incredible. The other characters have to break in and tell her to be quiet so that they can speak.

The direction by Missy Koonce is outstanding. On a small, mostly bare stage, her young actors conduct themselves with full authority. Her pre-show video does a terrific job of setting the tone for the evening’s performance.

I did have a couple of quibbles about the script. First of all were the names. In my entire life I never met a Catholic boy named Solomon. Also, Diwata’s name is misused within the play, but except for being 1/8th Filipina, the explanation for a white girl having such an exceptional name is never given. Second, the show runs too long. It is common for beginning playwrights to have trouble editing, and 2 hours and 15 minutes is too long for this play.

This play should be marketed heavily to 18 to 30 year olds. That is the natural audience, though the traditional crowd enjoyed it very much last Saturday evening.

Speech and Debate is playing at The Unicorn until July 12. Call the box office at 816-531-PLAY; or go to their website at for ticket information.

Greg Boyle can be reached at