This weekend at Portland’s Artists Repertory Theatre, Mike Lew’s play, “Teenage Dick,” gets its West Coast premiere. An adaptation of William Shakespeare’s “Richard III,” the play re-imagines the classic 15th century story in a modern-day high school setting.
First, about the play’s name: Lew said, “I really just wanted to get that title out into the world.”
Lew was approached by his friend, Gregg Mozgala, a New York actor, writer, and director with cerebral palsy who has been recognized by the Kennedy Center for his work illuminating the experience of disability.
Mozgala thought Shakespeare’s tale of Richard of Gloucester was ready for an update. The third son of a noble family, Richard suffered from scoliosis, and came to the throne through several fortuitously-timed deaths.
Historians say Shakespeare’s version may have left some with an exaggerated view of Richard’s crimes, but his theatrical incarnation is one of the great villains of the stage. (Especially notable: the 1995 film adaptation with Sir Ian McKellen playing Richard in full-on chain-smoking, wicked magnificence.)
In Shakespeare’s time, it was common for literature to use physical difference as a stand-in for moral deficiency. But the original play also takes a stab at explaining what happens to smart, able people who spend years excluded from social and professional spheres because of the way their bodies are built.
Why I can smile and murder while I smile/
Wet my cheeks with artificial tears and frame my face to all occasions.
And therefore since I cannot prove a lover I will prove a villain/
And hate the idle pleasures of these days.
For “Teenage Dick,” playwright Mike Lew recast Richard as a high school junior with cerebral palsy, or CP.
“So, I almost took the text of Richard III and deconstructed it, structurally, rather than approaching it from an academic standpoint,” Lew said. “How did this guy put together this play?”
Once that initial research was over, Lew put the source material aside and wrote his own work from scratch. The result is a snappy, smart mash up of dramatic and comedic. Most characters in the play speak modern English, but Richard’s language is a hybrid of pointed adolescent observations and Elizabethan dialect.
“Now that the winter formal gives way to glorious spring fling, we find our rocks-for-brains hero, Eddie, the quarterback, sleeping through his job as junior class president.”
As student council elections draw near, Richard, who has spent his life bullied and unrecognized for his considerable intelligence, seethes with ambition to become class president. He hatches a plan to discredit the front-runner, romance the most beautiful and accomplished girl in school, and bring home the vote.
“Teenage Dick,” premiered off Broadway and won great reviews for its pointed critique of high school cruelties … and how frequently the able-bodied world underestimates people with disabilities — when not ignoring them.
Most actors who have played Shakespeare’s Richard are able-bodied, but Lew requires companies performing the show to cast actors with disabilities in the roles of Richard and his best friend Buck.
“I think that one of the forefronts of theater right now is casting and thinking about who we’re championing on stage,” Lew said. The casting requirement is “a little bit of a poison pill, so to speak. You have to have the acting pool, and you have to think about your physical plant as a theater. Are you ADA compliant?”
For the lead of “Teenage Dick,” Artists Rep chose Christopher Imbrosciano, a New Yorker with several stage and TV credits. He was involved in early workshops of “Teenage Dick,” while Gregg Mozgala’s company, The Apothetae, worked on it with Lew.
“I started my career playing my share of Tiny Tims,” Imbrosciano said.
CP is a disease that affects people in different ways. Imbrosciano says this is the first time he’s been able to play a someone who experiences the condition the same way he does. The play, he says, delivers a complex, layered explanation for Richard’s mix of pain, rationalization and ravenous ambition.
Most of all, Imbrosciano says Lew, as an able-bodied playwright, did a good job representing what Richard’s physical experience is like. There’s a scene in the play in which Richard’s intended conquest, Anne Margaret, is trying to teach him to dance.
“Richard explains having cerebral palsy is like that moment when you step on an ice patch you didn’t know was there — how you brace yourself before you slip on the ice. That’s a pretty clear layman’s term definition of cerebral palsy.”
Cast member Tess Raunig, who delivers a breakout performance as Richard’s best friend Buck, said they’ve relished Lew’s comedy writing. But they were also delighted to find the show such a high-quality adaptation of the original source material — violent plot twists and all.
“What I’ve been telling people is it’s a comedy until it’s not,” Raunig said. “Because it’s still ‘Richard III.’ Bloodshed has to happen.”
Raunig, who also has CP and uses a wheelchair, built out a backstory for Buck that includes a supportive single mom and weekend jaunts at Walmart for some light shoplifting.
“Buck has had love,” Raunig says. “And that’s not as clear when it comes to Richard.”
Raunig says playing a complex, whip-smart character like Buck has been amazing. Even with the show’s dark turn from comedy to tragedy, they think “Teenage Dick” is a good show for high school students to see for its treatment of online bullying, as well as the more specific ideas about kids with disabilities.
“High school was complicated for me,” Raunig said. “I had a lot of extracurriculars. I was initially very drawn to theater. The drama teacher we had was very good but not very supportive. I was generally either playing a very young person or a very old person. I wasn’t cast in something my sophomore year, and he told me it was because he had too much movement planned.”
At that point Raunig began focusing more on music and only returned to the stage for this production.
Artists’ Rep consulted with the NW ADA Center, and the Disability Arts and Culture Project to ensure that everyone working on and attending the show could enjoy the experience.
Director Josh Hecht is on his own journey as the executive director of Profile Theatre, which will premiere its own remarkable commissioned work in February about chronic illness and caregiving. He knows Imbrosciano from his years in New York’s theater scene. His experience with the source material is more limited, although he did once serve as a dramaturg for a production of Shakespeare’s Richard III at the Public Theatre.
“What I really love about it is it’s about the hidden lives we all carry,” Hecht said. “All the characters are longing to be seen. All of our bodies have limitations.”
But he notes the show is loaded with powerful material for both drama and comedy.
“One thing Damaso and I kept saying to each other in auditions is, ‘Are they funny? Did we laugh in the audition?’ It’s been a joy to work in an ensemble of six really gifted, funny people.”
“Teenage Dick,” is onstage at Artists Repertory Theater through Feb. 3.