MUST SEES: Two plays now onstage in Boston: one a gloss on a Shakespearean historical tragedy, the other a clarion call to avert an historical tragedy!
Playwright Mike Lew’s TEENAGE DICK now onstage at THE HUNTINGTON exploded the pile of preconceptions I was sitting on, confounded my expectations, and expanded my world. THIS is what theater is for. TEENAGE DICK is a play on words and a play on a play– Shakespeare’s RICHARD III about the devious, hunch-backed tyrant who left a trail of bodies behind in his quest for the throne. TEENAGE DICK has been reset in the treacherous world of Roseland High School where the prize is the Senior Class Presidency, and Junior Class Secretary Richard Gloucester, after years of being bullied and outcast because of his cerebral palsy, is dead set on winning.
As the play opens, Richard (Gregg Mozgala) limps downstage alone and in the first soliloquy of the evening, outlines his intentions in a funny and startling twist on Richard III’s famous opening lines, “Now that the winter formal gives way to glorious spring fling,” Richard announces his intention to defeat the popular but block-headed jock Eddie (Louis Reyes McWilliams) and win the election at all costs. Taking his cue from Machiavelli’s handbook for power-grabbing “The Prince,” he will lie, cheat, and even use his disability, with a dollop of bravado, to woo Eddie’s ex-girlfriend the gorgeous Anne Margaret (Zurin Villanueva) as a way to win votes. Her character will later shock us to attention about the plight of Shakespeare’s short-shrifted heroines in a stunning, revelatory moment at the play’s climax.
He enlists the aid of Barbara Buckingham “Buck” (Shannon DeVido) a spitfire who uses her wheelchair as an extension of her body to drive home a steady stream of insightful, bawdy barbs and blunt observations. It immediately becomes clear what a vehicle for expression a wheelchair becomes in the hands of a skilled actress. Hilarious and wise, Buck’s character is the conscience of the play.
Several characters are more like “caricatures” in need of redemption and get it: the annoying over-achieving Clarissa (Portland Thomas) and the aforementioned lunk, Eddie, are both humanized by the end of the play. No such luck for the wanna-be-cool teacher/pal Elizabeth York (Emily Townley) hamstrung by PC pretzel logic which allows her moral framework to bend with the prevailing liberal wind. The talented ensemble is nimbly directed by Moritz Von Stuelpnagel on a clever, realistic set.
“Teenage Dick” borrows many of the names and plot points from its Shakespearean source; it also dazzles by interweaving priceless syntactical riffs on Shakespearean language which Richard spews when he means business. But the genius of the play is the application of its themes to contemporary issues of bullying, violence, inclusion, identity. What is our communal responsibility? What unconscious biases are we holding? Do we really see each other?
Gregg Mozgala in the lead is extraordinary. At first, I didn’t know if he were “acting” his cerebral palsy, or living it onstage as an actor in a disabled body. It turns out, Mozgala really does have CP and commissioned Lew to write this play for his own theater company The Apothetae. Mozgala, unstable on his feet as a result of CP, reveals Richard as a complex character, together and apart from his disability, walking a very fine line around the choices he makes. The character and the actor challenge what I thought was physically possible for someone with CP, and Lew’s play requires us to take a clear-eyed look at Richard’s physical reality.
In one pivotal scene this involves Richard learning a dance with the ultra-lithe, perfectly formed Anne Margaret who asks him point blank about his physical and emotional experience. He sometimes toys with her occasional discomfort in her own skin around him; jokes shared about “liberal guilt” make us understand the lack of empathy underlying the disconnect with those whom we perceive as “other.” Later, when the two conquer the dance floor, the plot and our perception of Richard is further complicated–how good or bad is he? Can we accept a contemporary disabled person as the villain?
The final lines of the play hit me right between the eyes. In a shocking bookend to the play, Richard once again walks downstage, looks straight out at the audience, takes the anger he has aimed at his classmates, and turns his hurt on us. I gasped; if I hadn’t been sitting down, the ending would have knocked me off my feet. Do not miss “TEENAGE DICK” onstage at The Huntington through January 2!
Meanwhile, a potent collaboration is fueling a world premiere musical now taking shape onstage at the AMERICAN REPERTORY THEATER– WILD: A Musical Becoming. Tony Award-winner and vocal powerhouse Idina Menzel leads a stupendous cast in a concert version of a musical fable created by Tony and Obie winner V (The artist formerly known as Eve Ensler of THE VAGINA MONOLOGUES) and directed by Tony Award-winning Artistic Director Diane Paulus. A vocally gifted ensemble with scripts in hand, sing the tale of a mother (Bea, played by Idina Menzel) trying to hang onto the family farm as climate change wreaks havoc on the crops, while the corporate world pits neighbor against neighbor in a fight for survival.
At the heart of the show is a more intimate drama of a mother and her teenage daughter (Sophia, played by Yde) on opposite sides of the political and generational divide. Yde is a charismatic, vocally-gifted performer who absolutely holds her own opposite the dynamic Menzel onstage. Another notable performance belongs to Luke Ferrari as a flamboyant and vulnerable non-binary teen singing their soul out as they seek fatherly acceptance–which cuts to the quick of the piece: humanity and what holds us all together. There is a larger central conceit made concrete onstage involving the animal kingdom and the organic world (which is pure Ensler) which will require some massaging in development and execution.
Nonetheless, it’s a beautiful idea made more urgent by the score. I was moved by these songs ranging from intimate ballads to rousing anthems written by Grammy-nominated hitmaker Justin Tranter and Caroline Pennell who know a thing or two about musical hooks. Here, in a stroke of casting genius, Boston Children’s Chorus was enlisted to lend its collective voice to amplify the generational impact of the message. I left with a particular tune that wormed its way into my head, and didn’t find its way out for several days. It also brought the house down half way through, earning a sustained standing “O” which stopped the show– and nearly my heart. Must See WILD: A Musical Becoming at the American repertory Theater through January 2!