Shannon DeVido and Gregg Mozgala in ‘Teenage Dick.’ (Photo: Carol Rosegg)
By Samuel L. Leiter
“My kingdom for a horse.” Or, rather, “My kingdom for some horsepower,” as high school student Richard “Dick” Gloucester puts it in Mike Lew’s supercharged Teenage Dick, now at the Public Theater. This is a serpent-toothed reimagining of Shakespeare’s Richard III as a potty-mouthed high school dramedy in which Dick (a moniker he loathes), the scheming boy hero, is running for president of the senior class.
In Lew’s hugely clever, freewheeling take, the Machiavellian Dick (who actually demonstrates his command of The Prince in a classroom scene) doesn’t need to fake a shambling gait: both he and his actor, Greg Mozgala (Light Shining in Buckinghamshire), in a breakout performance, have cerebral palsy.
Dick’s disability, not unlike his forebear’s, serves as the motivating force behind the pulsing ambition driving him both to prove his human value and to get even with those who’ve bullied him. Speaking with tongue in one cheek and venom in the other, his torrent of words combines a brilliantly heightened, ultra-sarcastic version of contemporary teen-talk with multiple Elizabethan locutions, including famous lines from Bardic sources.
“Who talks like that?” asks his even more noticeably disabled friend, Barbara “Buck” Buckingham (Shannon DeVido)—Yew’s version of the Duke of Buckingham—who whizzes this way and that in her motorized wheelchair. Both she and Dick often mine their handicaps for laughs: “In the land of the cripples,” he says, “one leg is king.”
Dick’s adder-tongued classmates at Roseland High also include his intimidating archrival, Eddie Ivy (Alex Breaux, Red Speedo)—standing in for Edward of Westminster, Prince of Wales—the popular numbnuts who captains Roseland’s football team, the Stallions, and serves as the current junior class president; the piously Christian Clarissa (Sasha Diamond)—corresponding to Shakespeare’s Clarence—who’s also running for president; and the beautiful Anne Margaret (Tiffany Villarin)—a conflation of Queens Anne and Margaret—an aspiring dancer who lost her popularity when Eddie dumped her. Their desperately earnest teacher, Elizabeth York (Marinda Anderson)—who owes her origins to the wife of Edward IV—often threatens to send students to “the Tower,” i.e., the principal’s office.
While there are many correspondences to Richard III, with its loyalties, betrayals, and seductions, Yew’s play takes enough liberties to be appreciated on its own. It starts off in a satirical vein, like Clueless, the high school-themed film based on Jane Austen’s Emma, but the humor grows ever darker, leading—somewhat disconcertingly, considering the play’s earlier tone—to moments of vivid violence. The searing climax settles Dick’s conflict over whether to be feared or loved.
Those familiar with Shakespeare’s history play about the ruthless, physically and mentally twisted, yet devilishly charming monarch, will enjoy the echoes, like the riff on Richard’s opening: “Now that the winter formal gives way to glorious spring fling we find our rocks for brains Eddie—the quarterback—sleeping through his job as junior class president.” And, as in the original, our hero, who elicits both sympathy and disdain, frequently offers expository speeches directly to the audience, deploying his verbal dexterity to plan his enemies’ downfall (through such devious means as GPA manipulating), while similarly weaving his seductive, deliberately self-pitying way into Anne’s pants.
In a script that dares to be politically incorrect (using words like “cripple” and “spazz”) for laughs, uncomfortable as they may be, Dick’s ability to manipulate people because of his physical handicap is part of the reason for his success.
Performed in Wilson Chin’s setting of a high school hallway lined with lockers surrounding a trophy case—excitingly lit by Miriam Nilofa Crowe, with spot-on costumes by Junghyun Georgia Lee—the fast-talking action hits the usual teenage targets, like popularity levels, class politics, social media, dating, sexual entanglements, and school dances. A notable highlight comes at the Sadie Hawkins Dance when Anne and Dick perform a sensational Saturday Night Fever-like routine (choreographed by Jennifer Weber) in which Dick overwhelms preconceptions by overcoming his spastic drawbacks.
It’s hard to praise highly enough Ma-Yi Theater Company’s production under Moritz von Steulpnagel’s (Hand to God) witty, energetic direction. Mozgala—who’d be perfect as Shakespeare’s crookback—leads a diverse, superbly well-cast ensemble, each actor brilliantly embodying Yew’s larger-than-life style, never missing a comic beat or character-defining line reading.
Mike Lew’s play was commissioned by The Apothetae, a company founded by Mozgala to focus on the concerns of the disabled community. Among the growing number of recent plays for and about the disabled by this and other companies, none demonstrate the importance of such work as ably as Teenage Dick.
Public Theater/Shiva Theater
425 Lafayette Ave., NYC
Through July 29
Samuel L. Leiter is Distinguished Professor Emeritus (Theater) of Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center, CUNY. Sam, a Drama Desk voter, has written and/or edited 27 books on Japanese theater, New York theatre, Shakespeare, and the great stage directors. For more of his reviews, visit Theatre’s Leiter Side, Theater Pizzazz, and Theater Life.