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Familiar Themes Acted Out Uncharacteristically

Two new local productions cast unique spins on contemporary issues.

In Boston, the Lyric Stage's production of "Speech & Debate" takes a hip look at how high schoolers are leading their lives. Across the Charles River, the American Repertory Theatre's world premiere of "Trojan Barbie" thrusts us into a war zone that's part "Iliad" and part Iraq.

"Morning Edition" critic-at-large Ed Siegel takes an appreciative eye at both.

Ed: Forget all those moralistic after-school specials. And don't worry about staying awake for ancient history. These two irreverent plays keep you on your toes whether they're surfing the net or surveying the Trojan War.

Let's start by going back to high school for the Lyric Stage's very enjoyable production of "Speech & Debate." It's all but impossible for your heart not to go out to three outcasts trying to find their place in a world that seemingly has no use for them.

The remarkable Rachael Hunt is Diwata, who's angry at the teacher who didn't give her the lead in the school play. She stages her own show, a musical production of "The Crucible." Here she is with the equally talented Chris Conner, who plays an openly gay young man, cast as a closeted Abraham Lincoln:

[Singing, audience laughter]

It's great to see such young blood seize the stage. And it's even more impressive to discover such a refreshing voice in playwright Stephen Karam. He navigates modern youthful jargon the way David Mamet throws around four-letter words.

But at the heart of the play are serious issues about alienation and privacy. Karam never beats us over the head; he lets the issues seep in subtly and humorously. We know these kids and their world by play's end.

"Trojan Barbie's" playwright is more seasoned. Christine Evans is particularly adept at making war and Western indifference to foreign tragedy inescapable.

One of the area's best actresses, Karen MacDonald, plays Lotte, a modern-day doll doctor who signs on for a singles vacation in Turkey. But in a "Twilight Zone"-like twist, she's carried off, along with Hecuba and other characters from Euripides' classic "The Trojan Women."

Among them is Polly X, Hecuba's punkish daughter, who collects Barbie doll parts. Here's an example of how Evans mixes and matches yesterday and today, as Lotte meets Helen of Troy, played fetchingly by Careena Melia:

Lotte: So, who is in charge here? I need to find--
Polly X: There's no point, you know.
Lottte: Well, I think--
Polly X: They don't listen to anyone. They are sooo determined to have their tragedy.
Lotte: It's probably PTSD
Polly X: What?
Lotte: Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
Polly X: Oh please. It's all an act with them.

Here, too, are a number of promising young actors, though it's the veterans, MacDonald and Paula Langton as Hecuba, who really shine in Carmel O'Reilly's smart production.

Not everything works like clockwork, but I didn't care.

[Start playing MUSIC in clear...fade under at first post]

"Trojan Barbie" isn't "The Trojan Women" any more than "Speech & Debate" is "The Crucible." But with such talented playwrights and such fine productions, that's a good thing.

"Trojan Barbie" is at the ART's Zero Arrow Theatre through April 22. "Speech & Debate" continues at the Lyric Stage Company through April 25.

Critic-at-large Ed Siegel reviews theater and the arts for Morning Edition.

This program aired on April 10, 2009. The audio for this program is not available.

Ed Siegel Twitter Critic-At-Large
Now retired and contributing as a critic-at-large, Ed Siegel was the editor of The ARTery.

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