Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

July 24, 2017

Speech and Debate

Barrington Stage, Pittsfield, MA
through July 29, 2017
by Shera Cohen

Photo by Justin Allen
The setting is Salem, Oregon. The young lead characters are misfits who are situated at the core of a larger society of deceptive, immoral, and secretive adults. It doesn’t seem to be too much of a stretch to make many comparisons of “Speech and Debate” to Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible.” The key elements are here, whether sited in Massachusetts or across the country in Oregon. Our teenage trio is small in number, up against the corruption of their town and their high school.

Actors Austin Davidson, Ben Getz, and Betsy Hogg each play “weird” exceedingly well, especially Hogg. It is probably safe to assume that the actors are adults in real life. In body and voice, they skillfully portray teens.

“Speech and Debate” is a strange piece of theatre, with music and dance. It is, however, not a musical. Preceding each scene are large video projections of cell phone texts, signs, and haphazard words. In other words, “Speech” is a decidedly contemporary play.

The setting is a single classroom, with a modicum of side sets to establish locations. While Director Jessica Holt succeeds in her casting decisions, she might have made some other choices regarding movement of characters; i.e. the two male teens have a lengthy text conversation from one end of the stage to the other as the audience watches what appears to be a tennis match. Another directing distraction appears at the play’s beginning, as a teacher aimlessly meanders across the classroom.

At ninety-minutes, the play seems long, especially for the many senior citizens at a matinee performance. It is also loud, full of computer jargon, teenage vocabulary, with many flashes of lights. However, the seemingly unending dance piece at the climax of the play is a marvelous semi-free for all set to music. Not to label stereotypes, but those audience members under age 30, seem to enjoy and “get” the characters and their story. “Speech and Debate” is part high school angst. More importantly, the play cloaks very serious subjects in humor.