My kingdom for a — well, for what?
It’s a question that hangs over Teenage Dick, the serious and seriously terrific new Richard III spoof that opened tonight in the Public Theater’s tiny, black-box Shiva Theater. Dick doesn’t just reinterpret Richard; instead it uses the both the broad strokes of Shakespeare’s tragedy and bits of language lifted from the Bard’s works to tell a story of scheming and revenge in a modern American high school.
And so the question that sits with you throughout is how — even whether — that classic equine inquiry will appear late in Dick, what the wordplay will be that makes the line work but also what scenario playwright Mike Lew will gin up to make it make sense.
I will tell you that he does it, but I won’t spoil things by telling you how.
On entering the theater, the audience sees the set. It’s a high-school hallway, lockers lined up in all directions. There’s a trophy case upstage center, with banners amid the cups and plaques. A single classroom chair is sitting on the linoleum-floored stage, with a bookbag next to it and a pair of shoes. There are a pair of leg braces attached to the shoes.
Teenage Dick is a coproduction of the Public and Ma-Yi Theater Company, devoted to new works by Asian-American theater artists. (Lew and his wife are the company’s resident playwrights.) It was originally commissioned by The Apothetae, a company dedicated to works that explore and illuminate the disabled experience. In Shakespeare’s work, Richard is of course defined by his disability, and here the younger Richard is also disabled. The character has cerebral palsy, and he is portrayed by Gregg Mozgala, the artistic director of Apothetae and an actor who has the disease.
There is a clear pecking order or Roseland High. Eddie (Alex Breaux) is the varsity quarterback and the class president. His ex girlfriend, Anne (Tiffany Villarin), is his beautiful and popular ex-girlfriend, and Richard is an outsider, both because he’s disabled and because he’s kind of an asshole. Richard’s only friend is Buck, or Barbara Buckingham — there’s that ambitious duke in Richard III, as you’ll recall — who is also disabled and uses a wheelchair (she’s played by Shannon DeVido, a hilarious comic actor who uses a wheelchair).
At the play’s start, these four are in class along with Clarissa (Sasha Diamond), a high-strung and religious Korean-American overachiever determined to get into Stanford. Their teacher is Ms. York (Marinda Anderson), who isn’t a duchess but we get the point. Conveniently, their seminar is on The Prince. Young Richard is the only student who’s prepared; he takes the Machiavellian lessons to heart. Ms. York is also the student government advisor, and she’s encouraging candidates to run. Eddie, already the junior-class president, expects to sail to senior victory. Clarissa wants the job to boost her college resume. And Richard realizes he wants it because he wants power and revenge. (He’s secretary of the junior class — third in line, as he’s quick to inform us, to power.)
“Machiavelli says cruelty is at times warranted but that over-cruelty generates hate,” Richard says as class ends, synthesizing both the lesson and, I think, the play’s moral point. “But what if you’re hated to begin with? If cruelty is a viable tool then why stop being cruel if you’ve always been hated since birth?” For unpopular Richard, the game is afoot.
In Shakespeare, Richard III’s physical deformity is the manifestation of his ugly soul. Here, Lew is presenting the possibility that it’s society’s reaction to Richard’s disabilty that turns him evil. Because the world hates him, he’s forced to hate it back. I find that argument a bit unpersuasive, mostly because this Richard is a dick from the outset. And because, even in the terms of the play, Buck, the other disabled student, remains friendly and (mostly) kind, and also (mostly) liked.
But amid the rapid-fire drama and wit of Lew’s play, this is a small complaint. He has constructed — well and tightly constructed — a thoroughly engrossing and entertaining play that zips through humor and pathos, building inexorably to its climax. It echoes the Shakespearian plot without simply aping it, and it’s filled with humor, Richard-referential and otherwise. Richard is given to flights of oratory, some Shakespearian and some Shakespeare-ish, nicely explained by the joke that everyone makes fun of him for talking like a medievalist. Over the course of 100-odd minutes, he’ll betray his friend Buck, seduce and then ruin Anne, destroy everything. Many people will be sent to the tower. (“You know, The Tower,” says Ms. York. “The principal’s office? It’s shaped like a tower.”) There are, of course, some Trump jokes, about unenlightened rulers and impressionable supporters.
Mozgala is more than a bit too old to be playing a high schooler, but his performance is a deeply affecting one, wounded and wounding, and masterfully manipulative. He plays the ambiguities in Lew’s script effortlessly — you can never quite tell if this unpopular boy is letting down his guard to be honest or making up a story to gain advantage. Villarin is a strong but sensitive Anne, convincing playing the cool girl who falls for the uncool boy. But it’s DeVido’s turn as Buck that’s most memorable — she’s dry, restrained, and totally compelling.
Moritz von Stuelpnagel’s direction is excellent, a well-paced, smoothly moving production that retains just enough scruffy edge for its venue and setting. Wilson Chin’s set is perfectly evocative, and the choreography, by Jennifer Weber, is sweet and moving, as Richard finally learns to move his body.
His body, ultimately, ends up slightly better off than his namesake’s. But not by much. In fact, the ending is perhaps even darker than Shakespeare’s. High school is a dark place.
Teenage Dick opened June 20, 2018 at the Public Theater and runs through July 29. Tickets and information: publictheater.org