A modern adaptation of Shakespeare’s Richard III set in an American high school, Mike Lew’s Teenage Dick (★★★☆☆) scores points off the wit and accuracy of its title alone. And Moritz von Stuelpnagel’s production at Woolly Mammoth keeps scoring with the play’s acerbically funny depiction of just how petty and ruthless this teenage dick can be.
Ambitious high school junior Richard Gloucester (Gregg Mozgala) might also be sympathetic, were he not so determined to prove a villain, hardened by the bullying and scorn heaped on him for being different. Lew has endowed his 17-year old iteration of the Bard’s hunchbacked Duke of Gloucester with an erect posture and cerebral palsy. In Shakespeare’s play, and in his day, the fact of Gloucester’s deformed body was cause enough for the ugliness of his character. With teenage Richard, however, it’s not his disability that deforms his virtue, but his vindictive response to how others have treated him — or, to his mind, dismissed him — due to his CP.
So when Richard sets out to win the election for senior class president, he doesn’t just want to win votes — he vows to systematically destroy his rivals. Mozgala, who originated the role in von Stuelpnagel’s 2018 Ma-Yi Theater Company production at New York’s Public Theater, makes Richard dastardly and funny, believably embittered by years of atomic wedgies. He shows us Richard’s glee in plotting to turn the tables on his greatest tormentor, the school’s alpha bro Eddie Ivy (Louis Reyes McWilliams), this play’s version of Edward IV.
Richard mostly plots in secret, but does confide in his buddy Buckingham (Shannon DeVido), or “Buck,” who’s also disabled. DeVido, likewise reprising her role from the original production, delivers consistently on Buck’s seasoned, sardonic responses to Richard’s escalating campaign of deception, occasionally employing her wheelchair to well-timed comic effect. She and Mozgala play off each other fruitfully, rounding out these characters as individuals worth caring about beyond their trajectories as stand-ins for Shakespeare.
McWilliams’ jock Eddie and Portland Thomas’ goody-two-shoes Clarissa, the play’s spin on the Duke of Clarence, feel less lived-in, more obviously devised as recast Shakespeare. The kids’ teacher, Ms. York (Emily Townley), counterpart to Elizabeth of York, runs and runs with the joke of constantly threatening to haul students off to the Tower for their misbehavior. That wink at the source material gets old, although Townley offers a reliable comedic kick to the proceedings.
Coincidentally, Lew gives his version of Lady Anne — Anne Margaret (Zurin Villanueva), the teen queen of Roseland High — a moving speech declaring, for herself and all of Shakespeare’s women, that she won’t be a mere plot device in some man’s drama. Anne asserts power over her body with an intensity that Villanueva makes palpable in the show’s most arresting moment.
By contrast, she and Mozgala share the show’s most endearing scene, a cute dance lesson, exemplifying von Stuelpnagel’s directorial control of the play’s many moods and modes. Lew slips in stretches of iambic verse that sound just right coming from Richard, though Buck is quick to question Dick’s waxing poetic.
Committed to layers of Macchiavellian conniving and deceit, Richard himself ponders whether he can alter course, and run a clean campaign. Can his conscience survive even the slightest turn towards evil? Is it better to be loved or to be feared is a provocative question coming from a disabled adolescent asshole who certainly wouldn’t want your pity.
Teenage Dick runs through October 17 at Woolly Mammoth, 641 D St NW. Tickets start at $29. Twenty-eight Pay-What-You-Will tickets are also available to every performance by selecting the PWYW seats and adjusting the ticket price. Visit www.woollymammoth.net.
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