Teenage Dick at Woolly Mammoth is a spectacular achievement: a funny, scary adventure rife with incandescent ideas. Woolly’s artistic director, Maria Manuela Goyanes, is one of the first at a major regional theater ever to program two plays in one season that feature disabled lead actors and characters (Teenage Dick and the forthcoming Hi, Are You Single?). Besides being highly entertaining, the play by Mike Lew offers revelatory insights into the world of the disabled.
Richard bounds onto the set, which looks exactly like a suburban high school anywhere in America but with a semi-Elizabethan touch: red, white, and blue battlements. It’s Roseland High, the Home of the Roseland Stallions. Richard (Gregg Mozgala) is currently junior class president. His goal: not only to be elected senior class president but to crush his enemies.
Mozgala is marvelous in the role, and, like Shakespeare’s Richard (let’s call him RIII), is eager for revenge after a lifetime of being bullied and looked down upon. Of course, like RIII, he’s not a particularly nice guy. And Richard’s disability is different: unlike Shakespeare’s RIII, he has cerebral palsy.
RIII in Shakespeare’s play has a hunchback and a withered arm; this is based on one of many inaccuracies in Sir Thomas More’s History of King Richard III. Shakespeare had every reason to make RIII look as bad as possible, since RIII’s archenemy, the Earl of Richmond (later Henry VII), was Queen Elizabeth’s grandfather. The real Richard Plantagenet (1452–1485), whose skeleton was discovered in a Leicester car park in 2012, had scoliosis, a less severe condition.
At Roseland, Richard’s rival for the presidency, Eddie Ivy (Louis Reyes McWilliams), is the incumbent. He is a football star, with looks, popularity, and a habit of winning.
The school is abuzz with rumors that Eddie has broken up with his girlfriend, the beautiful and talented dancer Anne Margaret (Zurin Villanueva), but no one knows why. Richard plans to convince Anne Margaret to go to the prom with him, as part of his election strategy.
Anne Margaret explains, “I don’t like you…I nothing you.” But she teaches him some dance moves, and he explains how his disability feels — as if he is always walking on ice, just about to fall. Their scenes are intrinsically moving, and they develop a strange kind of attraction, even love.
This is one of the key differences between Teenage Dick and Richard III. Teenage Dick is in many ways a love story. There was no love lost between RIII and the widow he seduced, the Lady Anne. There are no princes in the tower here, either; no attendant lords, and no hired assassins. The Duchess of York, Richard’s mother, does not curse him repeatedly. In fact, she does not even appear.
Richard is the only one who speaks Elizabethan English, and he does so only occasionally. His opening monologue (“Now that the winter formal gives way to glorious spring fling”) is stunning, but he weirds out his best friend Barbara “Buck” Buckingham when he calls her “sirrah.” Shannon DeVido’s Buck, who uses a wheelchair, is full of clever comebacks. She attempts to tell Richard some home truths; he, of course, does not listen.
Richard tricks the devout Christian Clarissa Duke (Portland Thomas) out of running for the presidency, and she somehow ends up managing his social media instead. Eddie and Richard clash repeatedly, sometimes coming to blows. Robb Hunter’s fight choreography is impressive here.
Elizabeth York (Emily Townley), the teacher, attempts to keep order but falls prey to Richard’s schemes just like everyone else. She does, however, seem to enjoy the Shakespearean duty of sending students to “the Tower” (the principal’s office).
There are many deviations from Shakespeare’s version — but the production has retained a dominant theme: Richard/RIII’s emotional reaction to the constant rejection he receives from society.
Richard and Anne Margaret have a sensational dance (the choreographer is Jennifer Weber), during which he wears a white tuxedo, à la John Travolta. And he is faced with the Machiavellian question: is it better to be loved or feared? Villanueva’s sensitive performance, and their chemistry on stage, leads us to hope he will choose love.
Up until now, the tone has been largely comic, and the high school setting makes it seem that even if there is trouble ahead, the future will not be utterly ruinous. But then the stakes become higher. Much higher. And the atmosphere becomes darker. Social media and attitudes about abortion become important in the plot, and Richard attempts to turn each development to his advantage. Likable when he is with Anne Margaret, he is still RIII underneath. This abrupt change of tone is not disorienting but exhilarating in its unpredictability.
Samuel Yates, PhD, Assistant Professor of Theatre History and Directing, School of Theatre and Dance, Millikin University, writes in the show’s digital playbill:
Lew’s work “reorients our approach from one where disabled people are expected to squeeze into able bodied people’s world, and instead calls upon able bodied people to inhabit our world.” This should be less of a leap for all of us now. Our shared experiences throughout the pandemic reveal just how contingent our bodies — and normative senses of health and wellness — really are. Moreover, Covid-19 has laid bare social inequities surrounding access to healthcare, barriers to economic and social participation in public life, and access to the performing arts. As we move forward together, this performance of Teenage Dick challenges us to listen to the speech of our bodies — and build a more empathetic, accessible, caring world in response.
Director Moritz von Stuelpnagel, Scenic Designer Wilson Chin, and Costume Designer Kelsey Hunt display significant artistry in presenting the high schoolers of today in their natural environment. The open-caption screen is designed right into the set. Lighting Designer Amith Chandrashaker’s work adds considerable excitement. Sound Designer Palmer Hefferan excels in the live-streamed presidential debate, during which Richard gets heckled.
The climax of Teenage Dick is a tour-de-force of light, sound, and theatrical brilliance. RIII, like many Shakespearean characters, is larger than life. He has the power to move us, make us laugh, and paralyze us with terror.
Richard is an American teenager. But he is just as fascinating.
Running Time: Approximately one hour and 40 minutes with no intermission.
Teenage Dick runs through October 17, 2021, at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, 641 D St NW, Washington, DC, with performances Wednesday through Friday at 8 pm, Saturday at 3 pm and 8 pm, and Sunday at 2 pm and 7 pm. Single tickets start at $29 and are available online, by phone at (202) 393-3939, and via email at [email protected]. Twenty-eight Pay-What-You-Will tickets are also available to every performance by selecting the PWYW seats and adjusting the ticket price.
This Woolly Mammoth Theatre production is co-produced with The Huntington Theatre in Boston, MA, and Pasadena Playhouse in Pasadena, CA.
By Mike Lew
Directed by Moritz von Stuelpnagel
Richard Gloucester Gregg Mozgala
Elizabeth York Emily Townley
Barbara “Buck” Buckingham Shannon DeVido
Clarissa Duke Portland Thomas
Eddie Ivy Louis Reyes McWilliams
Anne Margaret Zurin Villanueva
Understudy for Anne Margaret Maya Loren Jackson
Director Moritz von Stuelpnagel
Choreographer Jennifer Weber
Scenic Designer Wilson Chin
Costume Designer Kelsey Hunt
Lighting Designer Amith Chandrashaker
Sound Designer Palmer Hefferan
Fight Choreographer Robb Hunter
Assistant Director and Movement Coordinator Ashleigh King
Stage Manager Lauren Pekel
Casting Director Judy Bowman, CSA
Associate Set Designer Riw Rakkulchon
Associate Lighting Designer K. A. Rudolph
Woolly Mammoth commits its ‘badass theater’ to accessibility (includes calendar of Teenage Dick performances that are open-captioned, ASL-interpreted, and audio-described)
‘Hi, Are You Single?’ at Woolly Mammoth is hugely moving and entertaining (review by Michael Poandl of the streamed production)