Back to Class with Forge Theater at the Alchemist
Over the years, I’ve seen some really talented high school students in professional local theater productions. Whether it’s First Stage or some other company or in some rare cases an actual high school production that I’m seeing, there’s always some really impressive talent from the younger end of the spectrum on local stages. For this reason, it was a little strange for me going to see Forge Theater’s production of Speech and Debate at the Alchemist this past weekend. The center of the cast is a tight, little three-person ensemble of characters. Three people start out as strangers. By the end of the play,they’ve been through a lot and they’ve learned a lot about each other and themselves. This isn’t anywhere near as cheesy as it sounds because Stephen Karam’s script centers the story on the drama of three people. That they also happen to be high school students is peripheral to the story for the most part. Still--the particulars of the mood and setting feel a little strange with respect to casing.
All three of the characters are high schoolers. All of them are played by adult actors. Strange to feel like a purist on the teenagers-playing-teenagers thing, but this IS the Alchemist Theatre: one of the most intimate environments for theatre there is in Milwaukee. The set design looks A LOT like an authentic contemporary classroom. Put adults in there as students and it just doesn’t feel right. As the story developed, though, I began to see myself watching the play the ages of the actors melted in with the rest of the experience.
Sitting in the front row you might as well be in an actual classroom. You don’t have a desk, but that wasn’t the reason why it felt weird for me. It felt weird for me because I was holding a bottle of beer. They did such a good job wit the set that having a beer in the front row felt very, very wrong. I was an adult in a classroom. The illusion is kind of uncomfortable, but it IS an illusion. The production doesn’t feel like it’s designed to be a show for high school students because high school students would be bored to death watching people play high school students. Forge Theater is presenting adults playing high school students for adults in a play that’s been written...by an adult. So this isn’t a real representation of high school drama so much as it is adults trying to figure out what happened in high school, which makes for an interesting perspective.
The ensemble doesn’t seem to have been directed to be completely authentic with their actions. This isn’t a bad thing, though. Director Jake Brockman clearly knows what he's doing here. Yes, there IS serious drama that is delivered to the stage by serious actors who respect their characters, but there are little comic exaggerations here and there that serve to reinforce the idea that everyone in the theatre is exploring something that is in the past for us all even though we’re all still dealing with it. There's a gentle wash of impressionism over the whole thing. High school is a weird shared American origin story for every one of us. Here we have three “classmates” with which to experience high school for a little less than a couple of hours in a cozy, little theatre in Bay View.
Alec Lachman plays an aspiring journalist named Solomon. He’s got an amazing drive for investigation and understanding things, but he lacks a terribly deep understanding of interpersonal contact. Not much of a social life so he’s kind of awkward. Lachman respectfully amplifies that awkwardness with cleverly-placed little bits of obliviousness. Earbuds haphazardly dangle out of his pants pocket. He manages to make a compulsion to raise his hand before he speaks every time seem very natural. It’s a cool performance.
Kyle Conner plays Howie--a senior who has transferred into the school recently. He’s just transferred into a relatively small town from Portland, Oregon. He just wants to graduate, but he’s also dealing with being an 18-year-old gay man in a small town. He ends up flirting with a stranger via text in an interaction that becomes central to the plot. Conner has a chance to be a lot more subtle with his characterization thanks to being lent more of the textured subtlety of the script. Conner brings vivid life to a portrayal of someone who is...waiting. There’s a quiet restlessness about his performance that adds a sharp moodiness to the production.
Robin Lewis plays aspiring actress/performer Diwata. She’s the talented, driven young actress who never manages to get cast in the right parts. Like so many others, she’s trying to find her own way to the stage in lieu of decent casting. When she gets mixed-up into matters between Solomon, Howie and a member of the faculty, she sees her opportunity. The two guys reluctantly agree to join her in a speech and debate team that will give Diwata the kind of platform she needs. Lewis is charismatic in the delicate balance of a role that requires her to be both strikingly intelligent AND a little immature even though she knows she’s not. At first glance, Lewis is just playing an awkward high school drama kid, but watch her a little more closely and it becomes apparent that there’s a hell of a lot of character work going on. Karam doesn’t make her an easy character to play. It’d be way too easy for her to slide across th stage as a stereotype. Lewis stands triumphantly distant from a flat stereotype in the role, which is quite an accomplishment.
Rounding out the cast is Madeline Wakley in the role of both a teacher and a reporter. Walkey’s even-tempered resistance to exaggeration as the only adults in the cast keeps everything together quite well.
Forge Theater's production of Speech and Debate runs through Mar. 25 at the Alchemist Theatre. For ticket reservations, visit Brown Paper Tickets online.