Mike Lew’s Teenage Dick at Artists Repertory Theatre, directed by Josh Hecht, adapts Shakespeare’s Tragedy of King Richard III to the drama-prone environs of a present day high school. 17-year-old Richard Gloucester, played with grit, humor and incredible energy by Christopher Imbrosciano, schemes with sinister sneakiness to unseat quarterback and class president Eddie Ivy and steal his girlfriend.
Imbrosciano brings wide experience and believable teenage energy to his role. He has performed off-Broadway at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. and in London’s West End, among other venues. Like Richard, Imbrosciano has cerebral palsy, a neurological disorder that affects a person’s motor skills, balance and muscular strength.
Teenage Richard’s disability does not come close to the exaggerated condition of Shakespeare’s Richard. But then again, neither did the historical English king. When the remains of King Richard III were discovered in 2012, the real man did not match Shakespeare’s villain. Severe scoliosis curved his spine, but it didn’t give him a hump on his back nor did it even prevent him from riding into battle.
Shakespeare’s Richard, on the other hand, claims to be so malformed that dogs bark at him. His own love interest calls him a “dreadful minister of hell.” As human beings will do, Richard turns his pain to malevolence: “I am determined to prove a villain / And hate the idle pleasures of these days.”
While Shakespeare connected his hunchbacked villain’s physical malady to his evil nature, Lew dissociates young Richard’s disability from his immoral actions. “Under Elizabethan conventions,” Lew stated in an interview with the Playwrights Foundation, “Richard is evil because he’s disabled. Today, we tend to think of the disabled as sainted just because they’re disabled. Both of these constructs are traps.” Teenage Dick leads audiences away from this trap toward a truth: A person with a disability can be any kind of person.
Lew has received a PEN/Laura Pels International Foundation for Theater Award among other honors and is a Mellon Foundation National Playwright Resident at Ma-Yi Theater in New York. Teenage Dick was a New York Times Critic’s Pick during its original production off-Broadway last year.
The idea for Teenage Dick was conceived by Gregg Mozgala, an actor with cerebral palsy and director of The Apothetae, a theater company examining what it calls the Disabled Experience. Mozgala commissioned Lew to write the play.
Tess Raunig makes their professional debut as Richard’s best friend, Buck. Like Imbrosciano, Raunig has a disability similar to their character’s, which aligns with the playwright’s intention to cast disabled actors in these parts. Raunig’s expressive use of their wheelchair makes Buck real—and funny.
In the play’s best bit of physical comedy, Buck tears up an enemy’s campaign poster and runs over it repeatedly with both wheels. This brand of comic relief brought bursts of laughter throughout the play. However, the audience seemed less comfortable laughing in moments of dark humor obtained at the expense of either disabled character—probably the well-intentioned reaction of a sensitive audience.
Kailey Rhodes, who plays Anne Margaret, returns to Artists Rep for her third production after most recently appearing in An Octoroon. Queen of the school Anne Margaret could not exist without Rhodes’ physical skill honed as a dance teacher at Northwest Academy.
Anne’s complicated nature belies the stereotype she is supposed to fit into. She may be the most popular girl at Roseland High and may have dated the quarterback, but she longs to escape her small town. Anne pops out of her two-dimensional stock character mold when she retreats from trauma by dancing alone every day, falls for the misfit Richard and finally declares her independence as a female character no longer bound to the arm of a leading man. No spoilers, but this declaration involves a bucket of blood.
The rest of the cast charms even in their less complicated roles. Ayanna Berkshire, a resident artist in her fourth season with Artists Rep, plays the whimsical, naive English teacher Elizabeth York. Nick Ferrucci, who recently appeared in Third Rail Repertory’s John, pulls off the slouching varsity douchebag Eddie with great comedic instinct. Alex Ramirez de Cruz, returning to Artists Rep after last season’s An Octoroon, also works on devised theatre with String House. She plays the near-stock, bible-thumping Clarissa for more laughs in a funny, melancholic and sometimes creepy production that ultimately accomplishes its mission.
Teenage Dick appears through Feb. 3, including both weekend and weekday shows, at Artists Repertory Theatre, 1515 SW Morrison Street. For more information or to purchase tickets go to artistsrep.org.