Reviewed by Jeffrey R Smith of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle


Now through July 18, the Aurora Theatre of Berkeley is staging SPEECH & DEBATE by Stephan Karam.


As anyone who has graduated from a public school within the last decade can tell you, or as anyone who has attempted to teach in a public school can inform you, freedom of expression within secondary education has greatly expanded, yet it remains a skittish issue.


Within public education, anyone above the rank of teacher basically serves at the pleasure of the community and its mugwumps and muck-a-mucks: it serves no administrator's or educrat's professional interest to rock the boat with probing investigative journalism performed by some earnest but politically insensitive student.


Muckraking and an unmuzzled press in the hands of a naïve high school student—a.k.a. loose cannon—are more likely to invite the wrath of an embarrassed bureaucrat, than a nomination for a Pulitzer Prize.


Texting, Sexting, Twittering and Facebook have collectively served to lower contemporary society's threshold for privacy boundaries—frosted glass has given way to transparent shower curtains: the information age has tempted us to engage in a form of personal transparency even to the limits of exhibitionism within cyberspace.


Maro Guevara, Jason Frank and Jayne Deely—as Howie, Solomon and Diwata—as the teenage principals in this riveting play, exploit information in order to pursue their high school agendas.


Information is a form of currency: it buys cooperation, forms coalitions and it ferrets out additional information: like earning compound interest.


Facebook currently faces legal challenges from subscribers who feel that Facebook has compromised their confidentiality; likewise Diwata maintains a personal video blog site and she is shocked to learn that internet browsers, including fellow students, have been visiting her blog: as if they have snuck into her bedroom to read her diary or took a picture of her at a topless beach.


Howie want s to form a Gay-Straight-Alliance: he parlays his confidential information to gain a faculty sponsor for the alliance.


Diwata wants damaging information on her drama teacher—Mr. Healy—who failed to recognize her nascent talents and miscast her as a voice in the chorus, rather than the lead, in a high school production of ONCE UPON A MATRESS.


Solomon wants to do a profile on the city mayor, shining the torch of high school journalism on the hypocrisy of Republican gays who gain both political edge and moral high ground by systemically bashing gays.


Solomon, reflecting the expressed attitudes of Rick Santorum, the former Republican Senator from Pennsylvania who argued that Americans do not have a constitutional right to privacy with respect to sex, demands full disclosure—no pun intended—from the city mayor, while keeping his own sexual identity under wraps and well as that Democratic party members.


The play is excellent grist for thought.


Jayne Deely is an absolute delight as Diwata: the brilliant, machinating high school drama queen who is groping for power, position and influence in that small pond known as high school.


SPEECH & DEBATE provides an excellent vantage point from which to survey where we, as a wireless society, have delivered ourselves and our private lives.


For tickets to this mustn't miss, in-the-now comedy, call the box office at 510-8443-4822 or surf over to www.auroratheatre.org.



Reviewed by Jeffrey R Smith of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle


The California Shakespeare Company is presently performing THE PASTURES OF HEAVEN a stage adaptation by award winning playwright Octavio Solis, based on a short story cycle by Pulitzer Prize (1939) and Nobel Prize (1962) winner John Steinbeck.


Steinbeck, a native of the Salinas Valley, he spent his early youth in Spreckels Junction: an unincorporated town at the intersection on the Southern Pacific Railroad.


The train passed through the valley sweeping up the abundant produce and delivering it to California canneries and lucrative markets back east.


Living very close to both the land and the people or this rural community provided Steinbeck with the requisite intimacy to compassionately portray their struggle to harvest a dream from what is arguably the most fertile region on the continent.


The personal stories contained in PASTURES OF HEAVEN can be identified, if not separated, into twelve semi-distinct intertwined threads.


The title comes from the exclamation of a Spanish corporal who was lead into the valley in pursuit of a band of runaway Indian Slaves—a.k.a. heathen apostates—who had escaped from forced labor at Mission Carmelo.


The corporal dubbed the niche Las Pasturas del Cielo, linking its enchanting natural beauty with the 23rd Psalm: "He makes me lie down in green pastures, he leads me beside quiet waters . . . "


If there is a central theme, it is the pain caused when well-intended people try to clumsily help or satisfy the needs of others or the push and the pull of two distinct beings trying to head down the road of life hitched to the same wagon.


This too was not terra incognita to Steinbeck: even before multiple marriages became fashionable, Steinbeck had three of them; certainly he was no stranger to the tug-of-wars that supplant marital bliss after the pheromones and hormones begin to shirk their conjugal duty.


A versatile set design by Annie Smart, transports the Bruns Memorial Amphitheater audience through time and space to a place in California history where the land and its newly arrived denizens were swelling with hope, promise and expectation.


It was a brief moment in California history when it seemed like Lennie Small's dream of "living of the fat of the land" was a distinct possibility.


Eleven ensemble members re-invent themselves, through props, accessories and costuming, as nearly forty characters.


Rod Gnapp, one of the bay area's premier actors, provides much of the comedy in this brisk sequence of vignettes that illuminates the pivotal points in the stories of the simple but ambitious people with complex lives.


This is a great show that skillfully depicts the hypnotic draw and the boundless promise of California in the early years of following it annexation, at the point of gun, from Mexico by the treaty concluded at Guadalupe-Hidalgo, February 2, 1848.


This is acting and California history at its best; it should not be missed.


To step back in time to the nascent days of California statehood, call the box office at 510-548-9666 or via the website at info@calshakes.org.