Opening night of Theater Wit’s marvelous “Teenage Dick” was hopefully a harbinger. Mike Lew’s smart, funny and unexpectedly brutal (there’s a dire pivot in the final 15 minutes) drama is a mashup of Shakespeare’s “Richard III,” Machiavelli’s “The Prince” and the 1999 Reese Witherspoon classic “Election.” If this were a normal review, I’d now start talking about the show.
But before getting into that, know that you (obviously) can’t see “Teenage Dick” live. As in 17th century Europe, stages are dark to combat disease — plague then, COVID-19 now. But unlike in Shakespeare’s day, we have our electronics and our interwebs. So Instead of showing up at the theater at the appointed ticket time, audiences members can watch “Teenage Dick” via a private Vimeo link that will be shared with ticketholders roughly 15 minutes before showtime.
Following the stream, the audience can migrate over to GotoMeeting.com for a talk back with the artists, who Wednesday night joined in from Chicago, Florida, Boston and Michigan, among other locales. The sound worked, the visuals were fine. Being able to talk (or just listen) in real time with like-minded folk is a boon, (arguably) like never before.
It’s not ideal, but it’ll do. The massive work-around is a powerful reminder that art and community can endure, even as many of us are more physically isolated than we’ve ever been. There is no replicating the emotional jolt and communal joy (or despair) of live theater. There were minor sound issues during Wednesday night’s inaugural stream. But the art is intact and director Brian Balcom’s ensemble (filmed during one live performance held earlier this week) is heroically fine.
“Teenage Dick” is as the title indicates: a high school take on “Richard III.” Sort of. Richard (MacGregor Arney, who has cerebral palsy) opens in full-on Shakespearean mode, explaining that he isn’t built for sport and is reviled for his gnarled limbs. He’s not wrong. Varsity quarterback/Junior Class President Eddie (Ty Fanning, hilarious and alarming as a chucklehead with brain/muscle ratio of roughly 1:1,000) is king of Roseland High School. When he feels like it, Eddie brutalizes “twisted Dick,” often ending with a simian cry of “Stallion Pride!” as adoring students cheer. (You can practically smell the teen spirit in Sotirios Livaditis’ lockers-and-gym-floor set, and Almanya Narula’s violence design is wince-inducing).
But the election for Senior Class officers is nigh, and Richard decides he’ll win “by any means necessary.” It’s not just Eddie that Richard has to outmaneuver. There’s also Clarissa (Kathleen Niemann), an overachiever who runs prayer circles between classes and decides she needs the “freak vote” (code for “disabled vote”) to win. That contingent includes Richard’s best friend Buck (Tamara Rozofsky, a wheelchair user), who isn’t about to let herself (or her chair) be used as a platform for Clarissa’s obnoxious attempts to claim student council cred on her college applications.
Richard’s scheme to win is excellent and unconscionable. First, he enlists beleaguered English teacher Elizabeth (Liz Cloud), playing on her fears that Eddie will defund the drama club if he wins. From there, Richard’s rigs GPA records to disqualify Clarissa, uses Eddie’s ex-girlfriend Anne (Courtney Rikki Green) as a human pawn and weaponizes a stolen SUV. He uses his disability to his advantage, playing on people’s instincts toward pity.
Arney creates a complex, villainous hero. When he declares that 16 years of being treated like an asexual loser is enough to make a man snap, the moment is raw, real and an indictment of the way society often views the disabled. You’ll feel his pain. When he starts ruining people’s lives a la Richard III, all the compassion he’s engendered with the audience turns to complicity. It’s a wonderful parallel with Shakespeare’s Richard: One moment you ache for the way he’s been treated; the next, you’re wondering how you could feel for such a conniving amoral powermonger.
Rozofsky’s Buck is the sun to Richard’s storm (“I don’t have a big gaping hole in my soul that yearns to be filled with absolute power, ya sinister horcrux.”). She remains steadfast in her belief that people are good and so is life, mostly. Richard puts those beliefs to the test. When his actions make her lose her belief in his goodness, she does so with the formidable agency of a woman who knows exactly how much she’s willing to put up with.
The third major player here is Green’s Anne, an aspiring dancer with dreams of escaping Roseland on a scholarship that will lead to the studios of Alvin Ailey. She delivers choreographer Jake Ganzer’s ballet- and hip-hop-inspired moves with grace and fluidity, and her duet with Richard at Roseland’s Sadie Hawkins dance is pure, energetic joy. All of which makes her fate (not really a spoiler — in “Richard III,” none of the women fare well) a gut punch. Thankfully, she gets a killer monologue before she exits.
Throughout, “Teenage Dick” is funny, irreverent and insightful. That all comes through on screen. It’s not quite as potent as it would be in person, but if you silence your phone, dim the lights and engage it’s awfully close.
Catey Sullivan is a local freelance writer.