Review: ‘Teenage Dick,’ a high school-set riff on ‘Richard III,’ treats disability sensitively without sentimentality
The most daring move in “Teenage Dick,” a riff on “Richard III” set in an American high school, isn’t the casting of an actor with cerebral palsy as a surrogate for Shakespeare’s hunchback tyrant who hacks his way to the throne.
No, the most audacious aspect of this dark comedy (a Pasadena Playhouse offering streaming through Feb. 27) is that its lead adolescent character — who’s mocked for his disability — can be as dastardly as he desires. Playwright Mike Lew takes many liberties in adapting the story, but he doesn’t impose a redemption narrative on this coldblooded young man, who sets out for revenge on a world that has never let him forget his difference.
The writing can often take an instructional tone in plays focusing on historically marginalized characters. Audiences are enlightened about what they should think and feel. The cost of such theatrical do-gooding is sentimentality. The intentions are noble but the artistic effect is blunted.
This problem is not evident in “Teenage Dick,” which stars Gregg Mozgala, an actor with cerebral palsy who’s also an advocate for expanding opportunities for performers like himself. He came up with the idea of recasting a contemporary version of Shakespeare’s play with an actor who understands the stigma of disability from the inside.
Mozgala’s Richard is as charismatic as he is crafty and as vulnerable as he is malign. In snarky asides, Richard explains how badly he’s been treated at school, but self-pity for him has become a ploy to get what he wants. His ostracism is real, but he’s too bitter for tears. The mistreatment he recounts justifies for him the vengeance he’s about to mete out.
His goal is to be senior class president, which no one would give him much of a chance of achieving. As junior class secretary, Richard is third in line to the high school throne, which means he’ll have to rid himself of two rivals.
Eddie (Louis Reyes McWilliams), a star athlete who routinely bullies Richard but isn’t a one-dimensional bad guy, assumes he has the presidency on lock. Politics is a popularity contest, so how could he possibly lose? Little does he realize that the Niccolò Machiavelli reading that has been assigned in Mrs. York’s English class (and that Richard is able to recall verbatim) is going to play a role in how this race is decided.
As a satiric comedy, “Teenage Dick” can’t compete with “Election” or “Clueless,” two films from the 1990s that revealed our national character in teenage ruthlessness. The Shakespearean parallels Lew furnishes are clever enough, but recycling names and plot points goes only so far. The play’s originality lies in the way disability is treated sensitively but without sentimentality.
Richard doesn’t shoulder the burden of having to represent the disabled community on his own. Barbara Buckingham (Shannon DeVido), his wisecracking sidekick who goes by the name Buck, uses a wheelchair. She routinely calls Richard out on the way he uses his cerebral palsy as a convenient excuse, questioning his ethics with sarcastic retorts and flipping him the bird when he gets out of hand.
Richard assumes he can count on Buck’s solidarity as his scheme unfolds, but she quickly corrects him. “I don’t have a big gaping hole in my soul that yearns to be filled with absolute power,” she tells him. Her morality creates space in the play for Richard to be as wicked as he wants to be.
The play’s most touching encounter is between Richard and Anne Margaret (a searingly honest Zurin Villanueva), the class beauty who until recently had been dating Eddie. To elevate his public image, Richard manipulates Anne into asking him to the Sadie Hawkins dance. But their budding relationship surprises Richard, who is not accustomed to tenderness.
Anne, who has her sights set on becoming a professional dancer, teaches him to dance in a scene that is beautifully staged and acted. (Their performance at the school event is even more impressive.) But Richard’s character remains true to his Shakespearean origins. The comedy takes a rather savage turn. The ending is as abrupt as it is contrived, but the effect is nonetheless bracing.
Directed by Moritz von Stuelpnagel, the production was filmed at the Huntington Theatre Company in Boston. This Pasadena Playhouse presentation, produced in association with the Huntington and Woolly Mammoth Theatre in Washington, D.C., moves at a chilling clip.
The cast, which includes a terrific Emily Townley as the well-intentioned if fallible English teacher and Portland Thomas as a student whose political drive matches her religious zealotry, is solid. But Villanueva and DeVido leave the most lasting impressions.
“Teenage Dick” does something more important than build sympathy for a character with a disability. Richard’s condition is humanized, but his behavior is unconstrained. Mozgala gets to play the villain without apology, and he makes the most of this still-too-rare theatrical opportunity.
Where: Streaming at PasadenaPlayhouse.org
When: On demand through Feb. 27.
Tickets: $25; $50 for special Watch Party Feb.10
Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes
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