In a Teenage Take on ‘Richard III,’ Now Is the Prom of Our Discontent

NEW YORK — Although Shakespeare called him “that foul, bunch-back’d toad,” Richard III probably just had scoliosis. Or so archaeologists who have examined the real king’s recently discovered skeleton conclude.

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Jesse Green
, New York Times

NEW YORK — Although Shakespeare called him “that foul, bunch-back’d toad,” Richard III probably just had scoliosis. Or so archaeologists who have examined the real king’s recently discovered skeleton conclude.

Luckily, Shakespeare was a poet, not an osteopath. In “Richard III,” he demonstrates more interest in psychology than physiology, exploring how social exclusion may have led a brilliant, ambitious, frustrated royal to overcompensate by exacting a hideous revenge.

That approach made for great drama. But it has also made for four centuries of mostly regular-bodied actors simulating the appearance of disability with the help of prostheses, crutches, leg braces and plenty of ham. True, many of the actors have been memorably affecting, but never until this week has one convinced me that he knows what disability feels like from the inside.

The Richard who does so is Gregg Mozgala, now starring in Mike Lew’s “Teenage Dick,” a gloss on “Richard III” set in a modern-day high school. Although the play — a Ma-Yi Theater production that opened on Wednesday at the Public Theater — lands somewhat uncomfortably in the gap between simulacrum and satire, it includes scenes that are moving, exciting and profoundly eye-opening for audiences just beginning to see disabled actors onstage.

The most daring of these scenes takes place as Roseland High prepares for its Sadie Hawkins dance — or, as the 17-year-old Richard puts it, aping Shakespeare, “now that the winter formal gives way to glorious spring fling.”

With characteristic guile and unrelenting chutzpah he tries to convince the diffident Anne Margaret (Tiffany Villarin, lovely) to ask him out. He is well aware of the mismatch: Although Anne is school royalty, Richard is a much-bullied “disabled nerd Icarus,” as even his friend Barbara Buckingham puts it. He has cerebral palsy.

But in much the way Shakespeare’s Richard seduces Lady Anne in “Richard III” to get closer to the crown, teenage Richard goes after the cool girl as part of his plan to win the senior-class presidency by knocking out two likelier candidates in his way. One is Anne’s ex-boyfriend, the school’s dim football star, whom Richard hopes to humiliate in the process of winning her.

Playing on Anne’s kindness, insecurity and liberal guilt, he succeeds in getting her to invite him to Sadie Hawkins. The only problem is that Richard, self-conscious about his sometimes shuffling gait, doesn’t dance. Luckily, Anne does. In a scene that has little to do with “Richard III” but everything to do with the normalization of differences, she teaches him how to work with his body instead of against it.

This is extraordinarily intimate physically, and beautifully staged by choreographer Jennifer Weber and director Moritz von Stuelpnagel. But what’s even more intimate is the question Anne asks as she tries to understand Richard’s disability: “Like the way that you move, what does it feel like to you?”

I am sure I sensed the audience leaning in for the answer.

“You know how sometimes in winter when you hit an ice patch you didn’t know was there, how you brace yourself before you’re about to slip on the ice?” Richard responds. “That’s what it’s like for me all the time.”

This is not just muscular writing by Lew; it also has the ping of absolute authenticity. For that, Mozgala, who himself has cerebral palsy, surely deserves some of the credit.

Mozgala, who appeared last year as another man with cerebral palsy in Martyna Majok’s terrific “Cost of Living,” is the artistic director of the Apothetae, a theater company dedicated to productions “that explore and illuminate the ‘disabled experience.'” Lew is a director of the writer’s lab at Ma-Yi, which focuses on plays by Asian-Americans. New works are part of both group’s agenda: The Apothetae commissioned Lew to write “Teenage Dick.”

But much as we need new works featuring disabled characters, there is something just as exciting in the re-examination of old ones to see how they might accommodate disabled actors or be made more thematically accessible in light of modern experience. We do it for buildings — why not plays?

“Richard III” was a natural choice for that treatment, and whenever Lew’s update questions or complicates Shakespeare’s assumptions, even if that means departing from his template, it is riveting.

Usefully in that regard, the play features not just one disabled character but two: Richard’s friend Buckingham (Shannon DeVido) uses a wheelchair. (So does DeVido, who makes a hilariously sarcastic foil to Mozgala’s scarily driven Richard.) Together they can broaden — and disagree about — the issues “Richard III” tosses out but never thinks to catch. Is self-loathing the result of social rejection or the cause of it? Is disability something you are better off learning to accept as a limitation or struggling to rise above? This material is still relatively new to the mainstream stage. But even in its more familiar mode, when the play merely translates “Richard III” into an unexpected milieu the way “Clueless” does with Jane Austen’s “Emma,” it remains enjoyable. (Wilson Chin’s classic high school set, dominated by a trophy case, sets exactly the right tone.) If you know your Shakespeare you’ll have fun tracking the correspondence of names and plot points, and noticing the way the original monologues morph so effectively into sitcom-style asides.

But when the play, having coasted along as easy satire, tries to shift gears into a high drama of violence and self-violence, it quickly overheats. The Shakespearean consequences so far outstrip the contemporary setups that it’s difficult not to feel jerked around. In his loyalty to the tragic aspects of the original, Lew seems a bit like Lady Anne, seduced by Richard III, and to no better end.

I found the play exhilarating. It suggests how much richer the theater will be when it is truly open to artists of all kinds. Not just because those artists deserve employment but also because the canon of classics deserves reimagining to match our world.

Which is to say: Mozgala shouldn’t just be playing young Richard; he should be playing the old man himself.

Production Notes:

“Teenage Dick”

Through July 29 at the Public Theater, Manhattan; 212-967-7555, publictheater.org. Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes.

By Mike Lew; directed by Moritz von Stuelpnagel; choreography by Jennifer Weber; sets by Wilson Chin; costumes by Junghyun Georgia Lee; lighting by Miriam Nilofa Crowe; sound by Fabian Obispo; movement by Robert Westley; dramaturge, Jesse Cameron Alick; production stage manager, Alyssa K. Howard; production manager, Zach Longstreet; company manager, Heather Fichthorn. Presented by Ma-Yi Theater Company, Ralph B. Peña, producing artistic director, in association with The Public Theater, Oskar Eustis, artistic director, Patrick Willingham, executive director.

Cast: Marinda Anderson (Elizabeth), Alex Breaux (Eddie), Shannon DeVido (Buck), Sasha Diamond (Clarissa), Gregg Mozgala (Richard) and Tiffany Villarin (Anne).

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