Teenage Dick, Mike Lew’s uproariously funny and slyly subversive riff on Richard III, ushers in a glorious summer season at the Public Theater. (Sorry – I couldn’t resist). A co-production of Ma-Yi Theater Company in association with The Public Theater, Teenage Dick transports Shakespeare’s deviously warring royals to a contemporary American high school, with all the concomitant drama and fevered emotions such a setting provides. But Lew never settles for tongue-and-cheek jokes about hormones and homecoming pageants. Instead, he sets out to chart the full dramatic anguish of youth, while acknowledging bedrock issues of representation in theater – and he mostly succeeds across the board.
Of course, no playwright can expect to deliver a pastiche without a few winks and nods, which Lew delivers with clever subtleness. The action takes place at Roseland High School, home of the Stallions, where Richard Gloucester (Gregg Mozgala) plots his ascent to senior class president in the shadows of Wilson Chin’s locker-dotted set. To claim his throne – and the power that comes with it to administer the school’s discretionary funding – Richard must best the popular quarterback Eddie Ivy (Alex Breaux, appropriately handsome and doltish) and Christian crusader Clarissa Duke (Sasha Diamond), his main rivals for the job.
Richard has cerebral palsy (CP), another modern spin on what some have called the most famous disabled character in the history of Western drama. But he makes it clear that he plans to win neither on merit or on the back of his “inglorious station.” He will gain his crown “not by a pity vote. Not by campaigning. But by systematically destroying the competition.” Such a proclamation banishes any doubt that the boy in the polo shirt and baggy khakis (costumes by Junghyun Georgia Lee) isn’t as cunningly ruthless as his theatrical forebear.
Over the course of the play, Richard boldly uses his disability to his advantage. He hoodwinks Ms. York (Marinda Anderson), the student council’s overly sympathetic faculty advisor, to bend the rules for him. In a scene that brilliantly recalls Richard III’s merciless seduction of Lady Anne, he convinces Anne Margaret (Tiffany Villarin), Eddie’s ex-girlfriend, to invite him to the Sadie Hawkins dance, thus infusing him with some much-needed social capital. In a series of seductive asides to the audience, arrestingly lit by Miriam Nilofa Crowe, he even enlists the audience in his wicked plan – at the performance I attended, the entire crowd became willing accomplices, eating from his hand.
But just as Richard III humanizes its villain, Lew resists the urge to turn his teenage antihero into a purely evil stereotype. This Richard hurts, and Lew teases that even more than his physical limitations, his psychological wounds may never truly heal. His quest for control arises not just from Machiavellian machinations, but from a desire to escape the near-constant bullying that defines his high school life. Yet he knows that even absolute power won’t stop all the pain. “This isn’t an awkward phase,” he forlornly tells Barbara “Buck” Buckingham (Shannon DeVido), his only friend and unwilling accomplice, in an unguarded moment. “It’s the rest of our lives.”
Whether charming the audience with his Elizabethan turns of phrase or revealing his dark desires, Mozgala delivers a compulsively watchable performance. Like the best actors who’ve taken on Richard III in the past – a role he should totally play if he hasn’t already, along with Iago and Mercutio and scores of other parts in the Bard’s canon – Mozgala resists the urge to make Richard Gloucester just one thing. He is many people, existing in different contexts. One moment he is almost childlike in his vulnerability; the next, he summons hellfire in his blind fury. In short, he commands the stage.
But every actor in Moritz von Stuelpnagel’s expertly paced production excels, and altogether, they represent one of the strongest ensembles I’ve seen at the Public in recent memory. Anderson elicits awkward laughter as the well-meaning teacher who’s often unaware of how condescending she sounds, and Diamond goes full-throttle as a prayer warrior unafraid to thump her bible right over an enemy’s head. A comic by training, DeVido knows her way around a one-liner, but she can also land a revealingly honest line with searing clarity. A wheelchair user, she maneuvers her chair almost balletically, zipping out of scenes when she’s had enough.
Still, Villarin’s Anne Margaret emerges as Richard’s only true match. Lew gives her more agency than your average Shakespearean heroine, and he allows for a genuine affection to grow between the two characters. A scene of dance practice, winningly choreographed by Jennifer Weber, contains all the awkwardness of young love on the verge of blooming, with Anne Margaret’s lithe movements contrasting Richard’s self-conscious attempts to follow her lead. You sense that in a different story, this could be the start of something beautiful.
But that’s not the story Lew – or Shakespeare – set out to tell. No one here will meet a rosy fate, but Anne Margaret is destined for something particularly devastating. It would be wrong to reveal what befalls her, but suffice it to say that Lew finds ways to remind us that, as in Shakespeare’s time, women today can easily fall prey to the whims of feckless men. As her character spirals toward a tragic, avoidable end, Villarin’s performance grows in extraordinary detail. Hers is a talent to watch.
Teenage Dick contains multitudes: the timelessness of Shakespeare, the shared trauma of high school, the bitter yet irresistible quest for power. Lew also demands that disability be rendered with accuracy and without fetishization. What results is something unlike nearly anything I’ve seen on a New York stage, and I’m already hungry for more.
Teenage Dick runs to July 29, 2018. More production info can be found here.