Mike Lew leans in to the Machiavellian subtext of Shakespeare's Richard III for his high school-centric reinterpretation, Teenage Dick, a Ma-Yi Theater Company production now running at the Public Theater. In fact, he upgrades it from subtext to text via a Roseland High School English class in which we see Richard (Gregg Mozgala), our scheming junior class secretary with presidential dreams, meditate on the four roads to power laid out in The Prince.
As a social outcast with cerebral palsy, Richard does not seem destined for road No. 1, fortune." He then willfully skips over Nos. 2 and 3, virtue and civil election, and heads right to wickedness.'' To quote Shakespeare's Richard, he's "determined to prove a villain" and fulfill the gruesome expectations society and biology have set for him. It is with wickedness, as he declares in one of many melodramatic soliloquies, that he will dethrone sitting president Eddie (Alex Breaux playing a bullying football star for the millionth time in his career, as our stand-in for King Edward IV) and claim his rightful place atop the high school social ladder.
Lew continues his unsubtle character parallels: The second-in-line Duke of Clarence becomes Clarissa (Sasha Diamond), Eddie's Bible-thumping vice president and a presidential hopeful thwarted by Richard; Buckingham becomes the teenage Richard's wheelchair-bound friend Buck (Shannon DeVido), who, with an acerbic wit and solid grasp on reality, stays far more out of the fray than her Shakespearean counterpart. Elizabeth of York becomes Elizabeth York (Marinda Anderson), the teens' out-of-touch English teacher, and Lady Anne becomes Anne Margaret (Tiffany Villarin), Eddie's ex-girlfriend and the most beautiful girl in school, whom Richard somehow convinces to ask him to a Sadie Hawkins dance and ultimately woos with his conniving charm.
This romance, the most far-fetched of the plot points, seems even more unbelievable in the hyper-realistic setting of your average modern high school (Wilson Chin sets the scene with the traditional wall of bright blue lockers and a jam-packed trophy case). And yet, every implausibility is forgiven when the air of Shakespearean tragedy is exchanged for high camp. Tonally, you're never quite sure where you are in Teenage Dick — Anne tenderly teaching Richard how to dance one moment, and a de-balloted Clarissa having a full-scale paper-eating meltdown the next (Diamond commits to her tantrum, and it's fabulous). But Moritz von Stuelpnagel brings reflections of his no-holds-barred (and Tony-nominated) direction of the raunchy puppet comedy Hand to God to moments like these — and while they may ultimately confuse the genuinely serious moments that follow, the play's strongest asset is its humor, and the company capitalizes on every possible second of it.
To be fair, the confusion isn't just ours. Mozgala's Richard — brilliantly vacillating between Elizabethan and modern speech and taking on a surprising amount of choreography (crafted by Jennifer Weber) for an adaptation of Richard III — is less maniacally single-minded than Shakespeare's title character. He becomes legitimately torn (at least for a moment) between his ambitions and his newfound affections for Anne. A Richard with some exposed emotions is a Richard we can understand on a deeper level. And that's precisely what Mozgala aimed to accomplish when he commissioned this play for the Apothetae, a theater company he founded to explore the disabled experience. Lew dives into a few of those conversations explicitly (Anne asks Richard bluntly, "The way that you move, what does it feel like to you?"), while having Richard and Buck argue over whether Eddie carrying Buck on his shoulders for a symbolic touchdown at a homecoming game constitutes a nice gesture or a patronizing PR stunt (Buck cheekily remarks, "If a bunch of strapping lads wanna hoist me up and carry me like Cleopatra? Use me all day.").
But Anne (and Villarin's self-possessed performance of her) becomes the most pleasant surprise of Teenage Dick as she usurps the driver's seat for a brief moment near the end of the play. For an hour and 40 minutes, it's been made abundantly clear that Richard falls somewhere between villain and victim — a product of oppression, misperception, and neglect. Anne quietly reminds us that those are not the building blocks of a disabled person. They're the building blocks of a person.