Shakespeare’s “Richard III” inspires a clever and humorous update as a teenage high school story with new message about disabilities and the effects of bullying.
Add to this list Mike Lew’s new witty and clever Teenage Dick (being given its world premiere by Ma-Yi Theater Company in association with the Public Theater), both an update and a parody of Richard III now set in Roseland High School. However, while most of these other adaptations just want to demonstrate the contemporary relevance of Shakespeare’s Elizabethan stories, Teenage Dick has an additional agenda: does society’s bullying lead to defining the personalities of those with disabilities?
Seventeen-year-old Richard Gloucester, junior class secretary, has cerebral palsy and has been made to feel like an outcast in school from his earliest days. Planning to get his revenge on his classmates, the cunning and devious Richard decides to run for senior class president “by systematically destroying the competition. I’ll take down Clarissa AND Eddie AND hold dominion over all of this school.” Inspired by his English class assignment to read Machiavelli’s The Prince, he learns the four ways to power: fortune, virtue, civil election and wickedness. To Machiavelli’s question of whether it is better to be loved or to be feared, Richard chooses the latter.
Using his only friend, the disabled Barbara “Buck” Buckingham (in a wheelchair) who has access to the grades as his willing pawn, he goes about guilting Anne Margaret, the most popular girl in school, and the ex-girlfriend of Eddie Ivy, the junior class president, into asking him to the Sadie Hawkins Dance. Next he takes down Clarissa Duke, junior class vice president who assumes she is the only competition for incumbent Eddie, the dim-witted quarterback. Richard makes use of his disability to disarm his English teacher, Elizabeth York, into suspending the rules just for him.
The names of the characters cleverly match up with Shakespeare’s historical personages: Edward IV, Richard Gloucester, the Duke of Clarence, Duchess of York, Lady Anne, the Duke of Buckingham, as well as in the power hierarchy. However, the play holds up on its own even if you are not familiar with Richard III, though it does add another dimension if you do. From Teenage Dick’s opening line, “Now that the winter formal gives way to glorious spring fling,” we are treated to a witty mash-up of post-modern teenage slang and cleverly transposed Shakespearean lines, some parodying other plays in the canon.
The Tower now becomes the nickname for the principal’s office in its lone turret. Lew also gives Richard asides in which he tells the audience his plans, just as in Shakespeare’s soliloquies, as well as to other characters who also address the audience. The play’s one defect is that it shifts in tone from comedy to tragedy a little too quickly in reaching its sudden yet expected denouement.
As Richard Gloucester (aka Dick), Gregg Mozgala, who played John in his breakout role in last fall’s Pulitzer Prize-winning, Cost of Living, gives another virtuoso performance as if fueled by adrenaline. Himself stricken with CP, he is perfectly cast as he negotiates his way physically through Richard’s junior year including dancing lessons from Anne, a would-be professional dancer. In this juicy contemporary role, he seems to be enjoying himself enormously – just like the character he is playing. In fact, Moritz von Stuelpnagel has directed his entire cast so that the play moves like lightning and feels brief at 100 minutes.
As the popular Anne, the beautiful Tiffany Villarin makes her both deep and sensitive, gaining our sympathy from the beginning. Marinda Anderson is amusing as the teacher trying so hard to be cool to her students. Best known for his role in Lucas Hnath’s Red Speedo, Alex Breaux as Eddie plays another athlete who is out of his depth. Shannon DeVido as the wheelchair-bound Buck gives another perspective on the views of people with disabilities. Sasha Diamond has her big moments as the whiny, complaining Clarissa who always sees herself as the victim. Playing teenagers, the five cast members are totally believable as characters younger than their own ages.
Wilson Chin’s unit set of a corner of a room filled with lockers and trophy cases works beautifully both for Miss York’s classroom and the school’s gymnasium. The costume designs by Junghyun Georgia Lee for these contemporary teens are pitch-perfect, as well as her clothing for the lone teacher. Jennifer Weber’s choreography for Richard and Anne is quite remarkable.
Originally commissioned by The Apothetae, “dedicated to producing works that explore and illuminate the ‘Disabled Experience,’” of which Mozgala is artistic director, the play has been workshopped at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center’s National Playwrights Conference. The developmental process seems to have worked beautifully and Teenage Dick directed by Moritz von Stuelpnagel with its central role played by the generously talented Gregg Mozgala is a memorable theatrical experience. The play may also make you consider how we treat people with disabilities in a whole new way.
Teenage Dick (extended through July 29, 2018)
Ma-Yi Theater Company in association with The Public Theater
Shiva Theater at The Public, 425 Lafayette Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-967-7555 or visit http://www.thepublic.nyc/teen
Running time: 100 minutes without an intermission
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