Teenage Dick Review. Theater Wit brings Mike Lew’s updated Richard III streaming to the nation

Theater Wit’s production of Mike Lew’s play, which is running online through April 19th, has changed the way we view this teenage comedy turned melodrama based on Shakespeare’s “Richard III” – changed it literally and figuratively, changed it unintentionally and perhaps inevitably.

What was most striking about “Teenage Dick” when it debuted at the Public Theater   two years ago, was its focus on the character’s disability.  Richard, now a high school junior scheming to become student body president, has cerebral palsy – as does the actor who portrayed him, Greg Mozgala. Indeed Mozgala, the founding artistic director of The Apothetae theater company, had commissioned the play.

There is far more to do about disability in the script of “Teenage Dick” than there is in “Richard III,” certainly more enlightenment. When Richard’s able-bodied classmate Anne asks him, “Like, the way that you move, what does it feel like to you?”  Richard answers: “You know how sometimes in winter when you hit an ice patch you didn’t know was there, how you brace yourself before you’re about to slip on the ice? That’s what it’s like for me all the time.”

And Richard debates various  issues and dilemmas connected to being disabled  with his friend Buck, who uses a wheelchair (as did the actress who portrayed her)

RICHARD. Do you believe our social station is circummountable, or is it immutable?
BUCK. Good question. Immutable.
RICHARD. But… no, but don’t you believe we can rise past our
station, given sufficient cunning and skill?
BUCK. Nope no I don’t. I’m not like you, yearning to fly beyond nature’s boundaries like some kind of disabled nerd Icarus.

And when Richard reveals himself as a true villain at the end, he declares: “You already knew I wasn’t the hero from the moment I came limping your way. So close your eyes and forget about me. You always do anyhow.”

This emphasis on the issue of disability is the strongest aspect of the script,  and goes a long way towards allowing us to tolerate the odd shift in tone and even genre, from playful teen comedy to horror melodrama.

Lew is clever in his transposition of Shakespeare’s plot and especially his language: Riffing on the famous opening couplet of Richard III (“Now is the winter of our discontent/Made glorious summer by this sun of York”), Richard begins: “Now that the winter formal gives way to glorious spring fling, we find our rocks-for-brains hero Eddie—the quarterback—sleeping through his job as junior class president.” But the playwright winds up too faithful to the Bard’s history play, imposing Kingly intrigue and bloody violence onto a bunch of high school kids in a way that feels out of proportion.

It seems clear that the Theater Wit production likewise intended to emphasize  the issues surrounding disability. In an introductory video, the new director, Brian Balcom,  who has a disability himself, makes a point of saying how important this play is to him. As with the original cast, the new Richard, MacGregor Armey, also has cerebral palsy, and the new Buck, Tamara Rozofsky, also uses a wheelchair.

But what becomes the most noted aspect of Theater Wit’s production is not its themes, but that we’re watching it online – and especially, as it turns out, who “we” are.

“Teenage Dick” was scheduled in Chicago when the theaters were shut down there. The company decided to record its first and last performance, on March 16th, using two cameras, and that is what the company is offering every night, for $28 a ticket. It has added two introductory videos – one of which is a tour of the physical theater by artistic director Jeremy Wechsler – and a nightly “post-show conversation,” live and in real time, on an online platform called GoToMeeting.

The post-show conversation via GoToMeeting. This is just a corner of the screen, showing only Theater Wit people, including  five of the six cast members and artistic director Jeremy Wechsler. The full screen the night I “attended” contained about two dozen audience members, some of whom replaced their faces with their initials.

For a production so dedicated to making inroads into understanding the disabled, it is disappointing that Theater Wit doesn’t include the option of captioning the play. Perhaps that was not technically or financially feasible given the rush to keep the show going. But it points to the challenge for a small theater in translating their productions to the screen. It’s hard for them to compete with the more experienced, elaborate (and expensive) endeavors by the likes of Spike Lee (“Passing Strange” and “Freak” and, recently announced, “David Byrne’s American Utopia”) for monied platforms like Netflix. (See Where To Get Your Theater Fix Online, Old Favorites and New Experiments) We’ve come to expect that even our filmed theater will speak the language of film – close-ups above all. It’s why most of the pandemic-era online theater I’ve seen so far (which is to say, in the past ten days) have been monologues.  The camerawork in Theater Wit’s presentation makes it difficult to judge the performances of the six-member cast in “Teenage Dick.”  They seem fine. One scene that stands out is when Anne (Courtney Rikki Green) teaches Richard to dance, perhaps in part because it’s best watched from a distance. But viewing the backs of the actors’ heads more than once made me wish I was among the March 16th audience members that you can glimpse watching the show..

This makes a line by Richard’s teacher Elizabeth (Liz Cloud)  far more pointed (and less funny) than it was surely intended. She is trying to get Richard to run for student body president (unaware that he has been manipulating her to this very end), because she is the advisor to the drama club and she hopes Richard will back her up in making sure that all the school’s discretionary funds won’t go to the football team.  “I know someone like you understands the importance—the all-consuming social importance of live theater! “

It was in fact the live aspect of the evening that made the experience especially worthwhile.

As a couple of dozen audience members talked with members of the cast, we learned that only a couple were from Chicago; we lived in Indiana and South Carolina, San Francisco and New York – all of us in quarantine.

We got some behind-the-scenes tidbits. For example, artistic director Jeremy Wechsler told us that they had altered that filmed performance from earlier ones in the run: “We did some distance staging for kisses and violence for increased actor safety.”

We talked about the play a bit, and the psychology of the characters, and shared the novelty of this theatergoing. “Although we’re watching it together we’re watching alone,” one virtual seatmate observed. “There was a moment where I laughed at something on stage and I realized that the other  audience did not in the recording. And I wondered if anyone else alone shared that moment with me.”

Beth said: “I liked being able to move around and not worry about bothering anyone.”

Charles said: “I missed lines here and there but that happens for me live as well anyway.

”Lara said: “It felt very comforting to me to watch — a feeling of having missed being in a theatre and getting a taste of that brought back a little moment of “normal.” Even in the video format it did have that live feel like I could have been sitting there.”

One self-declared “art supporter and advocate” whose name I didn’t catch said the best part of the evening was being able to help the show go on and everyone get paid. “So many performances around the country have been cancelled.”

It’s that audience goodwill that makes me suspect this is just the beginning.

And I’m not alone.

Jeremy Wechsler shared a prediction with us: “Playwrights will start writing Zoom/GoToMeeting/Skype plays that can be acted remotely,”  (It’s already happening on Instagram.)


Author: New York Theater

Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

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