As live theater tests the waters of fully reopening, the safety of Shakespeare offers itself as a reliable pool of inspiration. It feels like everyone’s rehearsing a Henriad these days. The second-longest play in that cycle of kings, “Richard III,” is a fan favorite for its dark themes, gruesome endings and iconic lines, including “My kingdom for a horse!” Mike Lew’s adaptation, “Teenage Dick,” which opened on March 4 at Seattle Repertory Theatre, creates a kingdom in the English class and a cavalry at the Sadie Hawkins dance.
While knowledge of “Richard III” isn’t necessary to enjoy “Teenage Dick,” the context offers insightful parallels: Richard of Gloucester, a deceitful and cruel royal in the chaotic fallout of King Henry VI, lies and murders his way into kingship. Casualties include his brother, his nephews and anyone suspected of broken allegiance. Lew’s adaptation decides to shove the royal minutiae into a locker and assign it a homeroom.
“High school is high school is high school,” answers director Malika Oyetimein about the setting in the Seattle Rep program. “We all know high school. We all barely got out of it.” This sentiment is mirrored in the featured characters of Roseland High, from goody-two-shoes Clarissa (Meme García) to Eddie (Michael Monicatti), the top-dog jock. The fight of the school year isn’t for the crown, but the distinction of senior class president — and in turn, the fate of football, the drama club and teenage reputations.
“My kingdom for some horsepower,” booms MacGregor Arney as Richard Gloucester. A modernization that still requires the finesse of historical accuracy, “Teenage Dick” confidently situates itself in the 2010s, somewhere between touchscreen phones and TikTok. Whereas Shakespeare’s Richard is indirectly described as a disabled individual, Lew’s Richard has cerebral palsy.
While the majority of the script is in today’s dialect, Richard’s character more often borrows from the original text, earning an extra layer of awareness and criticism from his peers. Deviation from the verses for comedic interjections become weaponized when, for example, Richard and Ann Margaret (Rheanna Atendido) perform a parody of a famous “Chicago” song. The two bond over shared secrets and questioning social mores; while the two sing and dance to “All that Spaz,” the audience is presented with the polarizing decision of laughing along with the joke or swallowing the nuanced reality of reclaimed language and lived experience.
“Teenage Dick” is, in a word, challenging. Let’s be completely clear: It’s not challenging to make great theater with disabled actors, to design a set that’s wheelchair-accessible or to facilitate a platform for, by and about disabled people. The challenge, executed through a nuanced and passionate production, is for the audience. With a mirror behind the actors at times, audience members are compelled to confront their preconceived notions of disability in real time with their confrontation. The perspectives of multiple disabled characters and the artistic collaboration of a disabled director shatter the idea of disability as a monolith. Richard and Barbara “Buck” Buckingham (Meredith Aleigha Wells), a wheelchair user, spend most of the play in direct opposition about the nature of disability and their futures after high school. They each ally themselves with the other’s most detested enemy, and before long, Richard mourns the betrayal of his closest friend. The production encourages the audience to participate as the masses of the school, cheering and laughing to the peril of other characters, and face the consequences of their participation over reveals and outbursts.
Oyetimein agrees: “I believe that Seattle Rep audiences are ready to be challenged and shaken to the core.”
Accenting the script and the stage, however, some of the design elements don’t quite stick the landing. The range of costuming, from Richard’s school uniform blazer and Buck’s casual hat, to Eddie’s tracksuit and Anne’s leggings, gives an inconsistent picture of the school and the socioeconomic classes of the characters. While the soundtrack is highly nostalgic of the 2010s, the specific choice of “Titanium” by David Guetta featuring the singer Sia, whose absolute misrepresentation of, and gross perspectives on, autism have made her infamous in disabled and neurodivergent communities, sticks out in a questionable way. Was this song chosen specifically to lean into the discomfort of an ableist singer taking up space in Richard’s story, or was this overlooked for the lyrical significance to Anne Margaret?
Anne Margaret’s story adds an extra layer to the narrative that not only enhances every character around her but also assists audiences in further breaking down their understandings of disability. The current visibility of reproductive rights gives audiences a handhold when Anne Margaret’s abortion is revealed. The reactions among the student populace in contrast with the audience’s understanding of her emotions create a top-down example of a monolithic view toward Anne. In turn, this adds to the richness of the bottom-up view toward Richard, as the audience cultivates their opinions on disability over time.
Those who enter the space knowing the tale of “Richard III” already know that Richard is not the hero, but alongside those whose experiences begin at “Teenage Dick,” following Richard while encountering the ableism that ultimately feeds wickedness gives the viewer the harrowing responsibility of holding all of the pieces of the story. The campaign slogan “RICHARD IS GOOD” vice-grips the soul and leaves the room breathless.
In the play’s program, director Oyetimein warns that “taking the time to truly see an individual is a choice.” In just one act, “Teenage Dick” makes the audience sit down, take that time and rightfully respond with a roar of applause. It will be no surprise if “Teenage Dick” is considered a highlight for years to come and a necessary and beautiful story that pushes the audience, as all theater should.
“Teenage Dick” runs through April 3. In-person tickets range $55–$72; streaming access is available for $45. April 2 is a
sensory-friendly performance. March is Cerebral Palsy Acceptance Month.
W. Barnett Marcus is an actor and playwright from Tacoma who can be found on Twitter @WBarnettMarcus.
Read more of the Mar. 16-22, 2022 issue.