A novel idea: Watch the clever and enjoyable “Teenage Dick” at home

Review by Karen Topham, ChicagoOnstage, member American Theatre Critics Association; photos by Charles Osgood.

Note: This show, originally slated to be performed live at Theater Wit, is available online instead due to coronavirus. 

I was planning to review Theater Wit’s new production of Mike Lew’s Teenage Dick long before the coronavirus changed the world, forcing cancelations of everything that includes social gathering. Fortunately, Artistic Director Jeremy Wechsler saw this coming and arranged with the cast and crew (and, of course, the actors union) to stream a filmed version of the play. So here we go with something that is the same as usual and yet very different: a review of the play as seen online. 

You need a different mindset when you are watching something on a screen that, as Wechsler says, was “made to be performed by a group of people in a single room.” It cannot and will not be the same experience as seeing it live, but it turns out that the video version of Teenage Dick works really well, despite the rush with which it was created. Governor Pritzker’s crowd limitations had grown tighter and tighter, forcing the production date to move up from Friday to Wednesday to Monday, but the cast and crew managed to pull it off. As actor MacGregor Arney, who plays Richard, says, “a show becomes ready when it needs to be,” and an all-day Monday rehearsal allowed this one to feel fully realized.

For a discussion of theatres responding to coronavirus restrictions, click here

Lew’s play is a modern take on Richard III, with the famously disabled title character changed into a modern teen with cerebral palsy trying to find his way in a society that, as he says, has hated him since birth. The high school junior’s solution has been to focus his energy on his schoolwork, as we witness in an opening scene in which he is the only one in his class to fully understand Machiavelli’s The Prince. (The 16th Century treatise on power and political philosophy seems a bit on the nose in this context, but it does set up Richard’s devious mindset.) Already an outcast due to his disability, Richard distances himself further by speaking in a faux-Shakespearian diction that his classmates all think is just weird, especially when he goes into soliloquy mode. Thinking about his enemy, quarterback and class president Eddie Ivy (Ty Fanning, playing an absolutely perfect “dumb jock”), he tells us,

“They see my unpleasant shape and like a magnet I must repulse, whereas Eddie draws in their adoration like so many iron shavings. Eddie, who is naught but a Fabergé egg, all pretty surfaces hollowed of brains.”

Of course, like any modern teen, he is fully capable at times of speaking in the vernacular: “Ah, shit, I’m late for English.” Lew’s clever script makes use of both kinds of discourse to allow us to see fully into the mind of someone who, having been “othered” his entire life, decides at last to strike back. Both his dislike of Eddie and his decision to try to usurp the presidency are made clear in his follow-up to his “Faberge egg” metaphor, a whirlwind reflection of famous lines from several plays:

“Well Eddie, dear egg, I will crack thee. I come to bury Eddie, not to praise him. Is this a ballot I see before me? Eddie, the love I bear thee can afford no better term than this: Thou art a douchebag.”

In his scheming, he takes advantage of the fact that the student government’s faculty moderator, English teacher Elizabeth York (Liz Cloud, channeling every teacher who has ever tried too hard to be seen as “cool”), pities him and shares his disgust at Eddie’s unearned popular appeal. Once he has her on his side, he cajoles another disabled student, the wheelchair-bound Buck, who is his only real friend, to help him. (Buck is played by an excellent Tamara Rozofsky, creating a calm and likable foil for Richard as someone who does not allow her disability to get in her way). He believes that if he can manage to eliminate the third candidate, annoying super-Christian Clarissa Duke (Kathleen Niemann is brilliant here), he will be able to outwit the stultifyingly vapid Eddie and win the election. In a one-on-one debate, he talks circles around the football player:

“I will accede to your smug demagoguery no longer, you self-serving tyrant. What know ye of governance, monster. What knowst thou of the law?”

Eddie knows nothing, having spent all of his time not performing presidential duties or learning but training:

“I’m very busy preparing my body for what will obviously become my professional career, given that that is what happens for most high school athletes.”

Lew is very good at employing this kind of winking dialogue, using sarcastic humor to keep Richard’s harshness at arm’s length as long as he can. Ms. York is an especially good character for this, with knowing satirical lines like, “Thank you all for attending this mandatory assembly” and audience in-jokes like “I know someone like you understands the importance—the all-consuming social importance of live theater,” a comment that drips with irony considering the circumstances in which we are watching the play.

It is important to realize that Richard is, in fact, a “dick,” but Arney manages to walk the razor’s edge between outright villain and sympathetic hero for much of the play, helped out by Richard’s tender relationship with Anne Margaret (Courtney Rikki Green), Eddie’s former girlfriend. The scheming Richard first tries to use her as a means of getting to the quarterback emotionally but then, surprisingly, finds that both of them are starting to actually care for each other. The scenes between Richard and Anne are genuinely touching, thanks to Green’s honest, heartfelt performance, and for a while create real doubt, even knowing the source material, about whether he might choose love over vengeance. Green is especially poignant in a desperate monologue near the play’s end after Anne discovers the depth of Richard’s duplicity.

This is not a perfect play. Several times, especially near the end, important moments occur with little to no real motivation as Lew seems to be rushing his conclusion, and Ms. York does feel too näive to be real, a cartoon character in the middle of a very dark situation. But Arney’s and Green’s performances are both utterly compelling, and Brian Balcom’s sensitive direction makes every moment pulse with both confusing everyday teenage emotions and the painful darkness of the Other, who is driven to revenge on his classmates and the world in ways that might, in some different story, have turned him into a school shooter. 

Balcom’s strong work here is aided by a solid design team whose efforts are felt even in the streamed performance. Sotirios Livaditis’ sometimes surprising set is an excellent recreation of the high school world. Jake Ganzer’s choreography in a key dance scene, like intimacy and violence designer Almanya Narula’s work throughout the play, helps these characters come alive. Michelle E. Benda’s lighting may have felt more powerful in person but even on video helps to create lovely moments, especially during Green’s monologue. And Eric Backus’s sound design, especially the incidental music underscoring certain scenes, is outstanding. There are moments during the streaming when action is somewhat obscured, but this would naturally occur anyway due to the alley-style staging, in which the audience is on two sides.

In all, though it would certainly have been nice to see Teenage Dick live, watching it online is extremely enjoyable. In this time of sheltering-in-place, it’s great to be able to have the opportunity to see a play, and this is a good one. Your best bet to replicate the actual experience of seeing it in person would be to buy your ticket and watch it along with everyone else who is doing so at the same time as it would have aired. There is even a taped pre-show announcement and a talkback at the end. All we’re missing are the ushers helping us find our seats. It may have derived from exigent circumstances, but Theater Wit’s innovative experiment is not just the best we can do in troubled times, but a truly worthwhile experience. 

Teenage Dick is a Theater Wit production now streaming online due to coronavirus until Apr 19. The show runs approximately 90 minutes; there is no intermission. Check the website for specific dates, times, and how to stream. Find more information about current plays in our front page recs and attheatreinchicago.com.

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