Huntington Theatre’s Ambitious ‘Teenage Dick’ Challenges Our Assumptions

Louis Reyes McWilliams, Shannon DeVido, Emily Townley, Portland Thomas, Gregg Mozgala in ‘Teenage Dick’, at The Huntington Calderwood/BCA. Photos: Teresa Castracane

by Shelley A. Sackett

From the moment he walks onto the bare stage and addresses the audience in the first of many private monologues, it’s clear 17-year-old Roseland High School junior Richard Gloucester (Gregg Mozgala) has an angle beyond just establishing a connection with the audience. What that angle is is less clear, and will shape-shift with dizzying speed during the next 70 minutes until the audience is left in a delicious murky space of questioning almost everything they thought they knew about both Richard and themselves.

That Richard (and, as it turns out, Mozgala) has cerebral palsy, however, is indisputable. He wears two leg braces and walks with a spastic gait. It galls him that the junior class president is Eddie, the lunkhead quarterback and the vice president is Clarissa, a pandering religious toady, while he, imminently more qualified, languishes in his role as secretary.

But languish he will no more. Whatever it takes, this Richard is determined to rise to the top.

Mike Lew’s ambitious ‘Teenage Dick,’ a thinly disguised riff on Shakespeare’s “King Richard III,” appropriates the Elizabethan amoral, villainous scoliotic protagonist bent on murdering his way to the throne and recasts him as an impishly fiendish disabled high school senior, hell-bent on not just winning the election, but humiliating and grinding his opponents into dust.

Commissioned by Apothetae theater company, which is dedicated to productions that “explore and illuminate the ‘disabled experience,’” and where Mozgala is artistic director, ‘Teenage Dick’ deliberately features disabled actors on stage. The result lends a riveting authenticity. These actors aren’t just playing a part; they reveal what disability really feels like from the inside.

Back to teenage Richard who, still in his introductory aside, informs us matter-of-factly that he will “vault past my inglorious station” and become class president by systematically destroying the competition and holding dominion over the entire school. “I come to bury Eddie, not to praise him. Is this a ballot I see before me?” he asks in a mashup of well-known Shakespearean lines.

But why would he do something so mean? “Because they all hate me, that’s why! I was stamped for their hatred from birth. They see my unpleasant shape and like a magnet I must repulse,” he tells us. Yet, from the play’s prologue to its epilogue, we are left wondering: Is Richard’s self-hatred the result of his classmates’ rebuff or its cause? And, more critically, is disability something you learn to accept and adjust to or is it just one of life’s hurdles you strive to rise above?

Before those enquiries have time to sink in, poof! We are transported to Elizabeth York’s (Emily Townley) English class, where Richard’s classmates are none other than Eddie (Louis Reyes McWilliams), Clarissa (Portland Thomas) and “Buck,” (the show stopping, scene -stealing Shannon DeVido), Richard’s wheelchair-bound best friend.

Aptly, the class is studying Machiavelli’s The Prince, the original handbook for unscrupulous politicians. Unsurprisingly, Richard has devoured every word. He is armed and ready for election battle. He even has a plan: he will run a covert campaign.

He also has an accomplice. Or two. He has imperiously assumed Buck would be on board. He also manipulates the support of Ms. York —who is advisor to the drama club — by promising he will make sure the school’s discretionary funds don’t all go football. “I know someone like you understands the importance — the all-consuming social importance — of live theater!” she croons. When Richard responds by mugging to the audience, the masked crowd went wild.

Just as Shakespeare’s King Richard III seduces Lady Anne in his scrabble to the throne, Richard decides he needs to add Eddie’s cool ex-girlfriend, dancer Anne Margaret (the impossibly lithe and lovely Zurin Villanueva) to his arsenal. He turns his Machiavellian charm her way, conning her into asking him to the Sadie Hawkins dance and giving him dance lessons.

With his unbalanced and unpredictable shuffle, Richard is a challenge, but one Anne is up for. The scenes between these two are among the play’s most critical. They address disability head on and from the heart. Anne, intimately connected with the joy her body affords her, teaches Richard to acknowledge and accept his own limitations rather than fight against it. Their interactions are tender, intimate and beautifully staged.

“Richard, can I ask? What’s it like? Like the way that you move, what does it feel like to you?” Anne asks sincerely.

When Mozgala/Richard answers, the authenticity is palpable. “I’ve never been asked… 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?… That’s what it’s like for me all the time,” he answers.

The interactions between the sardonic hilarious Buck and Richard are similarly loaded. These two travel the same path and when they talk about it, it is from a place of shared legitimacy. Yet, their approaches couldn’t be more different.

“Do you believe our social station is circummountable, or is it immutable? Don’t you believe we can rise past our station, given sufficient cunning and skill?” Richard asks. “Nope, I don’t. I’m not like you, yearning to fly beyond nature’s boundaries like some kind of disabled nerd Icarus,” Buck replies.

But then she asks him the bigger question, the one at the heart of his personal psychological limitation. “Richard. Why can’t you be happy just being yourself?” Richard responds: “This [high school] is as good as it gets for us. This isn’t our awkward phase, it’s the rest of our lives.”

Although the writing and acting is uneven, this production is worth seeing for DeVido’s performance as Buck alone. Her delivery, gesticulations and wheelchair maneuvering are spellbinding and side-splittingly hysterical. Lew has given her the play’s best lines and she chews them up, spitting them out with relish.

Kudos also to Mozgala and his nuanced performance, Villanueva for her dancing and  Palmer Hefferan for her punchy sound design.

Alas, Lew’s shifts from satire to TV sitcom to high drama, melodrama and horror give the audience a mild case of the bends, and by the time Richard reveals his true self in his epilogue monologue, emotional fatigue has set in. Yet these words arouse us from our sensory overload:

“You already decided who I was before it was mine to choose it, so what else could I do but act out the role that’s been writ? If that makes me the villain, welllll… You already knew I wasn’t the hero from the moment I came limping your way. So close your eyes and forget about me. You always do anyhow,” Richard says.

Lew’s zinger closing line goes to the heart of the biggest issues ‘Teenage Dick’ addresses, that is: Did Richard choose to be a villain or was he forced into that role? Is he undone by his own psychological defects or by outside forces that have marginalized and bullied him? And, ultimately and most importantly, how much of the responsibility do we in the able-bodied world bear based on how we might have perceived and treated the disabled?

For more information and to buy tickets, go to https://www.huntingtontheatre.org/season/2021-2022/teenage-dick/.

‘Teenage Dick’ – Written by Mike Lew; Directed by Moritz von Stuelpnagel; Scenic Design by Wilson Chin; Sound Design by Palmer Hefferan; Lighting Design by Amith Chandrashaker; Choreography by Jennifer Weber; Fight Choreography by Robb Hunter. Presented by The Huntington Theatre Company at The Calderwood Pavillion, 527 Tremont St., Boston through January 2, 2022.‘Teenage Dick’ – Written by Mike Lew; Directed by Moritz von Stuelpnagel; Scenic Design by Wilson Chin; Sound Design by Palmer Hefferan; Lighting Design by Amith Chandrashaker; Choreography by Jennifer Weber; Fight Choreography by Robb Hunter. Presented by The Huntington Theatre Company at The Calderwood Pavillion, 527 Tremont St., Boston through January 2, 2022.

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