Although it contains things to admire, this production of Teenage Dick feels too much like an afterschool special or not great theatre for young people.
Teenage Dick is playwright Mike Lew’s reimagining of Shakespeare’s Richard III as a high school drama. Shakespeare’s Richard is a murderously ambitious “bunch-backed toad.” (The historical figure’s recently discovered bones testify he probably had scoliosis.) In Lew’s retelling, the junior class secretary, seventeen-year-old Richard Gloucester, who has cerebral palsy, has his eye on the “throne” of the school presidency. A hated outcast by his own account, Richard sets out to improve his social standing — and chances of election — by dating Anne Margaret, who used to go out with Eddie, the stereotypically dim-witted football player and current president, who bullies Richard.
Described by his only friend Beverley Buckingham (Buck) as a “disabled nerd Icarus”, Richard regularly slips into quasi-Shakespearean language. Sometimes, he directly references Richard III (“Now that the winter formal gives way to the glorious spring fling ”), but he borrows freely from the canon (“I come to bury Eddie, not to praise him.”)
The script is self-conscious in that way and Eddie isn’t its only stereotype. Another student, Clarissa, is a prissily dogmatic Christian, and their English teacher Miss York a goofily well-intentioned liberal.
As directed by Ashlie Corcoran, pretty much everybody in the cast leans into the script’s broad style. That means there are a whole lot of telegraphed reactions and a good deal of high-volume emoting. To be clear, within this established style, the actors find a level of authenticity. Christopher Imbrosciano confidently delivers a mountain of text and a range of feeling. His portrait goes deepest in the later going, when he’s at his most still. And, playing Buck, Cadence Rush Quibell delivers the evening’s most consistently naturalistic portrait.
But, for me, the general level of showiness — in the script and in this interpretation — made the emergence of the story’s heaviest plot points, which deal with intimate secrets and murder — feel unearned. The light scaffolding of the play simply can’t carry this kind of weight.
Still, the script and this production cover some important thematic ground. Lew’s play satirizes liberal guilt, and it allows Richard, who is both sexual and villainous, to transcend the stereotype of the virtuous disabled person. Buck, who uses a wheelchair, contextualizes the particularity of Richard’s evil: “I don’t have a big gaping hole in my soul that yearns to be filled with absolute power.” And, in a welcome surprise, Lew allows Anne a telling monologue of her own.
I was never bored by Teenage Dick, but I was never as deeply engaged with it as I wanted to be either.
TEENAGE DICK By Mike Lew. Directed by Ashlie Corcoran. An Arts Club Theatre production in collaboration with Bard on the Beach and Realwheels Theatre. On Saturday, February 18. On the Newmont Stage at the BMO Theatre Centre until March 5. Tickets and information. The Arts Club is hosting Crip Cabaret: A Reclamation on Sunday, February 26. Here’s where to get tickets for that. There will be a relaxed performance on March 4 at 2 p.m. and a described performance for the blind and those with low vision on March 5 at 2 p.m.
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