By Mike Lew; Directed by Moritz von Stuelpnagel
Produced by Ma-Yi Theater Company
Off Broadway, Play
Runs through 7.29.18
The Public Theater, 425 Lafayette Street
by Keith Paul Medelis on 6.25.18
Shannon DeVido and Gregg Mozgala in Teenage Dick. Photo by Carol Rosegg.
BOTTOM LINE: A slick, loose update of Richard III, Mike Lew's Teenage Dick is a play about who gets to tell the story.
“You already decided who I was before it was mine to choose it,” declares Richard, or the teenage “Dick” of the show’s glorious title. “So what else could I do but act out the role that’s been writ?”
And act out Gregg Mozgala does, as the teenage Richard Gloucester. Using Shakespeare’s Richard III as its inspiration, Teenage Dick takes place in the mundane Roseland High School. Where Shakespeare's Richard is described as a hunchback, Teenage Dick's Richard (like Mozgala) has cerebral palsy. In his clean, modern take, playwright Mike Lew lifts some lines directly from Shakespeare, leading to a way of speaking for which Richard is criticized at times, especially by his wheelchair-using friend Barbara "Buck" Buckingham (Shannon DeVido), who frequently asks him “Who talks like that?”
Richard, the current secretary of his junior class (he ran unopposed), wants to become class president, but must beat out his two opponents: Eddie Ivy (Alex Breaux), a popular jock and current class president, and the current vice president, Clarissa Duke (Sasha Diamond), a goody two-shoes Christian. (For those who know Richard III, Clarissa of course is this version's George, Duke of Clarence, and Eddie is Edward, Prince of Wales). Richard joins forces with DeVido’s dry Buck (i.e., the Duke of Buckingham), and the two manage to take down Clarissa. Richard then sets his sights on Eddie, in an increasingly vicious revenge plot.
Before you fear that this is just another Shakespearean play set in a time and place that barely makes sense, simply for the delight of the director, fear not. Lew writes contemporary dialogue, saving the Shakespearean lines for passing references. If you don’t know Richard III, you’ll be just fine. And if you do, you’ll enjoy where Lew departs from Shakespeare, notably with his portrayal of Anne Margaret (Tiffany Villarin), who quelle horreur, actually has a developed character here (as compared to Shakespeare's Lady Anne Neville).
“I know this is Richard’s story so I’ll be out of your way in a minute,” Anne mentions in an aside that has some serious consequences. "It's always Richard's story...or Hamlet’s. Or Henry the VIII’s. Or Eddie’s. Or Tom’s.” Lew drives some swords right through the conventional theater wisdom where, in stories about powerful men, women are merely an accessory. And Tiffany Villarin’s Anne is anything but an accessory. In fact, it is her story that drives Richard’s and motivates the central plot. Shakespeare would likely delight to see Lew’s take on the infamously problematic wooing scene, which here features ableism and liberal guilt. In Lew's wooing scene, Anne's plot continues, rather than ends.
As directed by Moritz von Stuelpnagel, Teenage Dick succeeds in navigating the often difficult line between making a play that speaks to today while also nodding toward the past. Scenic designer Wilson Chin provides a classic high school café-gym-a-torium of sorts, complete with trophies, lockers, and laminated wood floors, all crowned with cinder blocks mimicking a medieval castle tower (and filled with a few surprises). Crucially, Yew has written this play (commissioned by Mozgala's theatre company Apothetae) to feature not one, but two disabled actors. And this is clear in the script, so future productions will need to cast accordingly—as Lew says, disabled actors "exist and they're out there." In doing so, he and Mozgala continue the important work of exploring the "Disabled Experience" through a play that complicates our conceptions of "a disabled person" while also subtly reminding us that "disability" is itself a complex term.
As Richard starts to craft his own journey to success after a life of being severely underestimated due to his cerebral palsy, he is forced to sacrifice much in the process. Von Stuelpnagel steers us through a largely comedic play, forcing us to confront jokes about CP, wheelchairs, and teenage bullying. As much as we may laugh, we are also indicted in this, especially by the play’s end, where a sharp turn from what has come before delivers harsh impact. Audiences familiar with Richard III will know what I’m talking about. Teenage Dick delivers.
(Teenage Dick plays at the Public Theater, 425 Lafayette Street, through July 29, 2018. Performances are Tuesdays through Fridays at 7:30; and Saturdays and Sundays at 1:30 and 7:30. There is no performance on Wednesday 7/4, and an additional performance on Monday 7/2 at 7:30. Tickets are $55. More information and tickets are available at publictheater.org.)
Teenage Dick is by Mike Lew. Directed by Moritz von Stuelpnagel. Choreographer is Jennifer Weber. Scenic Design by Wilson Chin. Costume Design by Junghyun Georgia Lee. Lighting Design by Miriam Nilofa Crowe. Sound Design by Fabian Obispo. Production Stage Manager is Alyssa K. Howard
The cast is Marinda Anderson, Alex Breaux, Shannon DeVido, Sasha Diamond, Gregg Mozgala, and Tiffany Villarin.