Speech & Debate
PURE Theatre
Lance Hall
Circular Congregational Church
150 Meeting St.
Pay What You Can Preview: July 29 at 7.30 p.m.
July 30-31, Aug. 1, 5-6, 8, 14-15 at 7.30 p.m., Aug. 9 at 2 p.m.
$20/Wed., $30/Thurs., $30/Fri. and Sat.
(843) 723-4444

Over its six-year existence, PURE Theatre has established itself as many things: a producer of plays with stripped-down, no-nonsense staging, serious themes, and assured acting, often in down-to-earth situations that local audiences can relate to.

In PURE’s previous Summer Slams — the name given to their out-of-season mid-year plays — the humor has been dark and bloody. While most of the company’s shows contain irony and wry jokes, regulars don’t come expecting a laugh a minute. Speech & Debate aims to change that with a hilarious script and a fresh young cast.

Many comedies bill themselves as hilarious. It’s one of the most overused words in theatre PR. But done right, Stephen Karam’s off-Broadway hit comes with a serious likelihood of side splittage. The humor arises from a trio of teenaged oddballs and their formation of a speech and debate club, spearheaded by a frumpy girl named Diwata. Wounded by her rejection from being cast in a school musical bit part, she recruits two unsuspecting kids — one’s the school reporter, the other’s just looking for something to do. Together they target drama teacher Mr. Healey, who likes to send suggestive IMs to 18-year-old students.

“We’ve tried to downplay the creepy teacher who’s been on chatrooms,” says the play’s co-director David Mandel. The sick subplot runs through the play, but Mandel is determined to keep the tone as fun and frothy as possible. “Sometimes we’ve done blood and guts for Summer Slam.” He cites Killer Joe and the Tarantinoesque Horse Tranqs & Carriage People as prime examples. “This is more on the lighter side. The teens are the leads in the show, playing crazy goofballs looking to be loved and appreciated for being the brilliant people they want to become.”

To get where they want to go, they set out to impress their peers with a musical presentation featuring an accused witch from The Crucible and a gay Abe Lincoln.

Eventually they realize they’ll be disqualified — debate teams, after all, are best known for their oratory, not their choreography or their nude body stockings. While they decide whether to tow the line or do their own thing, the students question their sexuality and try to figure their lives out.

They tend to be smarter and more mature about their life plans than the adults in the play; they soon see through an arts reporter from The Oregonian, who is using the kids to break a scandalous story and exploiting their personalities to get what she wants.

The teen actors come with quite a pedigree. Addison Dent recently made a strong impact as a babbling idiot in Village Playhouse’s A Flea in Her Ear. Will Northcut appeared in PURE’s Rabbit Hole. And co-director Sharon Graci’s daughter Sullivan Graci-Hamilton is a veteran of PURE shows such as Hogs and A Waffle House Christmas. Graci is careful to treat Sullivan as she would any other actress.

“I’m conscious of the fact that I’d be shorter with her, applying less patience than with anybody else,” says Graci, who is also PURE’s artistic director and co-founder. “I’d be gentler with someone I don’t know.”

That awareness helps to balance out the process. Graci adds, “I like her work a lot in terms of watching who she is as an artist, watching how she’s become really settled and how much she’s maturing.”

Working with a young cast has given Graci and Mandel a chance to go back to fundamentals. “If we have our core members in a show, we’re fast,” Graci says. “There’s a common language we use and a modus operandi we all get. With the kids it’s more like basic training — we look at how to apply acting technique and the effect that really has on the art of theatre. We’re not just putting on a show.”

PURE has made increasing use of projected images lately, and Diwata’s misguided ideas for her debate-cum-musical show lend themselves to a multimedia approach. Also, rolling walls help to suggest multiple sets. “It’s not realistic like The Seafarer,” Graci explains, referring to season six’s gritty opener. “It’s fun and creative.”

Grown-up acting support will come from C. Kathleen Donnelly, but the story’s primarily told from the perspective of the students. Mandel rates it as honest, mature material for adults and teens with cool parents — somewhere between PG-13 and R for its language and lifestyle topics. That sounds like a typical PURE play, except for all the funny business.

A lot like the offbeat kids in Speech & Debate, the theater company hopes to exceed expectations in an entertaining, accessible manner.

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