by JK Clarke
There are a handful of phrases that are likely to get the attention of the FBI’s algorithms and probably should be avoided in your emails or Google searches. Things like “I’ve got a bomb,” “would you like to buy some heroin” or, say, the title of the Ma-Yi Theater Company’s latest play (at The Public), which shares the sly humor of its subject matter, the life of Richard III as a highschooler: Teenage Dick. It’s an appropriately juvenile and clever name for Mike Lew’s brilliant imagined exploration of Richard of Gloucester’s formative years, before he became Shakespeare’s vicious and bloody monarch—but this one is set in a contemporary, midwestern American high school.
I’ll come right out and say it: I haven’t laughed this much at a play in quite some time. Lew’s script is genius in its intricacies and is a beautiful tribute to, and parody of, Shakespeare, as well as the play for which it is named. Richard’s (Gregg Mozgala) opening speech, which mirrors his namesake’s “Winter of Discontent” monologue, cleverly references, without being trite, three (or possibly four) Shakespeare plays in one paragraph:
Well Eddie, dear egg, I will crack thee.
I come to bury Eddie, not to praise him. (Antony and Cleopatra)
Is this a ballot I see before me? (Macbeth)
Eddie, the love I bear thee can afford not better term than this: thou art a douchebag. (Romeo and Juliet)
Teenage Dick may be one of the smartest syntheses of Shakespeare and the clichéd high school anxiety drama plays ever written. And, yes, there have been a few. It also owes itself to countless teen movies about politics, bullying and cliques, from Election to Mean Girls to Clueless. It’s even got the predictable, yet familiar high school setting (set by Wilson Chin): trophy case, bright blue lockers, and Sadie Hawkins dance in the school gym.
But even here there’s a wrinkle. Two of the actors in the play are disabled. Mozgala (Founder and Artistic Director of Apothetae theater company, as well as a 2018 Lucille Lortel Award winner and Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle Awards nominee) has cerebral palsy, which affects, at a minimum, his gait, the full mobility of one of his arms and his balance. His character, Dick, has the same condition and, much like the actual Richard of Gloucester, who is said to have had severe scoliosis, he is the target of derision, bullying and harassment by classmates. He, like Shakespeare’s Richard, blames his rage and near sociopathic desire for revenge on the torments he suffered. But his classmate, Buck (Shannon DeVido) who is modeled on Richard’s ally, The Duke of Buckingham, is also disabled, but also wheelchair bound. (DeVido’s irreverent deadpan delivery is one of the funniest things in the play; she brings to mind in both look and attitude the terrific original Saturday Night Live cast member, Lorraine Newman.) Buck, however, is not bent on revenge against all her equally cruel adversaries, unlike Dick.
The story’s plot loosely follows Richard III as well. Dick loathes Eddie (Alex Breaux, who bore the eponymous swimwear in the excellent 2016 NYTW play Red Speedo and, oddly, is frequently cast as the “Bro”), the clichéd “big man on campus” and football team quarterback. He’s also the reigning class president whom Dick sets out to unseat . . . surreptitiously. First by engaging Buck to sabotage upbeat and neurotic Christian candidate Clarissa (played as delightfully annoying by Sasha Diamond), then by dating the school’s most popular girl, and Eddie’s ex, Anne-Margaret (Tiffany Villarin), whose name is a play on the women of Richard III, particularly Anne, who Richard woos at the funeral of her murdered (by him) husband, Edward, Prince of Wales. Meanwhile, student government teacher Elizabeth (Marinda Anderson), also a Richard III reference, is firmly on Dick’s side, helping his election efforts (sometimes unethically) whenever she can. It all comes crashing down, of course, and in shocking fashion, when Dick pushes it all too far, turning from victim to tyrant.
Lew’s script remarkably, and unexpectedly, follows the tragic twists of the original, creating a gothic horror that’s far more relatable than a bunch of 15th century royals slaughtering one another. The very realness of the characters—each a reflection of a type we all know well—helps drive the points home more impactfully than anticipated. What begins with laughable portrayals of often sympathetic, often pathetic classroom archetypes ends up being the stuff of heartbreak. Director Moritz Von Stuelpnagel (Tony-nominated Best Director of Hand to God) guides the cast adeptly through the chaos Dick creates so quickly that the climax is upon us before we realize what has happened.
Teenage Dick. Presented by Ma-Yi Theater Company. Through July 30 at The Public Theater (425 Lafayette at Astor Place). One hour, 15 minutes, with no intermission. www.publictheater.org
Photos: Carol Rosegg