I spend more evenings than most people in the dark with other people, watching yet other people pretend to be . . . well, other people. So seeing Teenage Dick at Theater Wit Monday night, knowing it was the last live performance I’d be at for a while, had a special poignancy to it. (Mixed with pandemic guilt—”Should I even be out here tonight?”)
Mike Lew‘s play, directed in its Chicago premiere by Brian Balcom, lives on for Chicago audiences for a short time in a streaming version on Vimeo, recorded at that invitation-only performance. The schedule remains the same as if it were live, and each performance is limited to 98 views. (You receive a private URL and password prior to the streaming time, though of course how many people watch it with you in your preferred place of social distancing is up to you.) To maintain the theatrical experience of demanding heightened attention, you can’t go back to see something you might have missed, though you can pause the video during the 100-minute intermissionless running time.
Afterward, you can join a virtual town-hall discussion with the cast and crew via GoToMeeting.com, in keeping with Theater Wit artistic director Jeremy Wechsler‘s desire to, as he told the Reader‘s Deanna Isaacs earlier this week, “preserve as much of the in-theater experience as possible.”
Though squinting and straining for of-the-moment relevance is a parlor game for critics even in putatively normal times, it’s hard not to view Lew’s play (which premiered with New York’s Ma-Yi Theater at the Public in 2018), as being particularly apropos right now. By taking Shakespeare’s Richard III and setting it in the cutthroat world of a contemporary high school, Lew has forged an unholy and unsettling alliance between 1980s teen comedies (despite one character declaring “We’re not in some old-timey John Hughes movie with easily definable cliques”), Alexander Payne’s 1999 satirical film Election (in which a scheming Reese Witherspoon tries to win the crown of class president), and eventually some much darker influences. Much, much darker. (Hi, have you met Shakespeare?)
It also draws on the narrative trope of social media as a driver of conflict, à la Dear Evan Hansen, with tweets projected on the walls of Sotirios Livaditis‘s locker-lined set. (You can’t see those projections in the video version, but most of them are accompanied by voice-over so you won’t miss much.)
Above all, Teenage Dick is about social isolation and how it can create existential voids too easily filled with dark imaginings and twisted solipsism.
Richard—played with an arresting mix of pathos and creepiness by MacGregor Arney—is an unpopular teen (despite his standing as junior class secretary) who blames his cerebral palsy for his social isolation. He plots to get even with alpha male Eddie (Ty Fanning), the school quarterback and current class president whose relentless mockery of Richard’s disability feeds the boy’s resentment and desire for revenge. “He’s Phoebus Apollo, whereas I am just feeble,” Arney’s Richard laments in Lew’s version of that famous opening soliloquy. Lew’s adroit gift for mixing faux-Elizabethan dialogue with contemporary locution is commendable and the source of much humor. Richard never seems to grok that his tendency to talk like The Riverside Shakespeare (calling a classmate “a pox-scrabbled harlot,” for example) might be as big an impediment to his peer acceptance as his CP-affected gait.
To stop Eddie, Richard also has to take down Christian overachiever and class vice president, Clarissa, the target of his nasty “harlot” riposte. (Kathleen Niemann stepped into the role late and delivered a fine take on nerd-girl histrionics—I say that as a former high-school nerd girl.) His frenemy, Buck (Tamara Rozofsky), who uses a wheelchair but doesn’t get the same grief for her disability from Eddie, sees through his schemes, but prefers not to get too involved once she helps Richard knock smarmy, patronizing Clarissa out of contention. His English teacher, Miss York (Liz Cloud), is blind to his ambitions, even when, in a bit of foreshadowing, he lays out the how-tos in Machiavelli’s The Prince point by point in class. But when Richard woos Anne (Courtney Rikki Green), Eddie’s ex and a talented dancer, things get much stickier.
Unlike Shakespeare’s original, Green’s Anne is a fully dimensional person and not merely a plot device. Indeed, Lew makes this her story even more than Richard’s. But it’s also significant that Lew has taken the questions of what drives Shakespeare’s antihero and given them a relatable contemporary makeover.
Is Arney’s Richard morally warped because of how the world treats him as a person with a disability, or is he an inherently off-putting person who uses that disability as an excuse for his behavior? (Is he depraved on account he’s deprived?) Does the politics of dominance, so pronounced in our current shitshow, turn everybody into a dick?
By putting Anne’s own relationship with Richard in a central place in the story—first acceding to his transparent pleas for sympathy in asking him to the Sadie Hawkins Dance, then actually growing to like Richard as she teaches him some dance moves and shares her own vulnerabilities—Lew creates a mirror for the nondisabled audience members. What is the line between compassion and pity? Anne and Richard’s joyous dance in the gym (sharp choreographic work from Jake Ganzer) is followed by a gut-punch turn into tragedy that feels like a reminder that all of our lives are fragile, pandemic or no pandemic.
A character with a disability who isn’t there to make people without disabilities feel good about themselves, or to serve as what disability rights activist Stella Young terms “inspiration porn,” is still, sadly, a rare thing in theater and film. Richard is indeed a teenage dick: watching him both onstage and on video, I was reminded of a line from the 2005 documentary Murderball, about the U.S. mens’ Paralympic rugby team. A friend of team member Mark Zupran, who became a quadriplegic after a car accident, noted that Zupran hadn’t really changed: he was “an asshole” before his accident, and remained one afterward. It’s also notable that Rozofsky’s Buck has the confidence Richard lacks, and doesn’t feel the need to lash out at everyone around her. “I’m not like you, yearning to fly beyond nature’s boundaries like some kind of disabled nerd Icarus,” Buck declares.
It’s especially meaningful to watch this story unfold online when one realizes that access to theater itself is often a limiting experience for both artists and audience members. Director Balcom, Rozofsky, and Arney are all artists with physical disabilities. In the online postshow discussion, Balcom noted that access barriers to theater also include cost and geographic limitations. Theater Wit is charging for the livestream, but they’re also paying their artists through the run. (Wechsler notes that they worked out an arrangement with Actors Equity to make this online version of the production possible.)
Watching the show on a screen isn’t the same as watching it live. But in these times, it’s a good way to help keep the theater flame alive. And it’s also a reminder that even in good times, it’s often the only way many people ever get to experience the liveness and community of theater. v