Theater review

Richard is a pretty big fan of that Machiavelli guy, but he has a quibble or two. Whereas the author cautioned would-be despots to modulate their ruthlessness in “The Prince,” Richard takes a different view.

“If cruelty is a viable tool, then why stop being cruel if you’ve always been hated since birth?” he wonders.

Why indeed. This is high school, where the bullies are vicious, and the bystanders aren’t much better.

Mike Lew honors that age-old tradition of transplanting Shakespearean power struggles to high school hallways in “Teenage Dick,” a re-imagining of “Richard III” now on stage at Seattle Rep through April 3.

Originally commissioned by New York company The Apothetae, which says it’s “dedicated to the production of works that explore and illuminate the … ‘Disabled Experience,’ ” “Teenage Dick” takes the “rudely stamp’d” Richard of Gloucester and turns him into Richard (MacGregor Arney), a high school junior with cerebral palsy.

Naturally, Richard has big ambitions. He wants to be class president, but he’ll have to take down his rivals, including quarterback Eddie (Michael Monicatti), who arrives prefabricated from the stereotypical dumb jock factory, and Clarissa (Meme García), a fervent religious overachiever who’s just weird enough to sidestep Bible-thumping clichés.


Richard is ridiculed mercilessly for his disability, but he does have allies, including eccentric English teacher Ms. York (Erika Vetter), whose encouragement of Richard to run for president isn’t entirely altruistic, and Buck (Meredith Aleigha Wells), a wheelchair user more comfortable with the status hierarchy than Richard. As he escalates a campaign of treachery and manipulation, Richard pushes both to see just how far those affinities will extend.

Lew’s play has some worthy conceits, including having Richard frequently dip into Shakespearean-esque dialect, much to his peers’ annoyance. (“Thou hast to stop talking like that,” Buck mocks.)

But the seams show on a parade of dialogue that’s straining to be clever, while Lew’s aims at caustic wit merely achieve sitcom glibness. Seattle Rep’s production, directed by Malika Oyetimein, has a tendency to draw its scenes as garishly as Matthew Webb’s classroom lighting design, with obvious punchlines delivered obviously.

The chief exceptions are Richard’s scenes with Anne (Rheanna Atendido), Eddie’s ex-girlfriend who Richard woos as a scheme to undermine his opponent. But when Anne, a dancer uninterested in the drama her classmates thrive on, becomes intrigued by Richard, he must decide whether his plot or her affection matters more.

Like every other character in the play, Anne is mostly a vehicle to examine Richard’s desires, but Atendido’s openhearted performance cuts past the caricatures around her to access real human vulnerability.

Of course, that’s also present in the turn from Arney, who drags “Teenage Dick” and its muddled sense of purpose across the finish line with a wry, self-possessed performance that toes the line of likability but generally keeps us firmly in his corner, even as his despicable behavior worsens.


In commenting on the modern disabled experience, “Teenage Dick” mostly just highlights the primary modes many able-bodied people employ in their interactions: condescension or pity. Eddie’s use of “differently abled” is merely a euphemism for a slur and Anne’s immediate reaction to a joke is self-defense. (“I just totally liberal guilted you,” Richard laughs.)

But the mere act of creating a lead role for a disabled actor is substantive, and the script instructs companies to cast disabled performers as Richard and Buck, as Seattle Rep has: “They exist and they’re out there.”

The problem with “Teenage Dick” is exemplified in a late fourth-wall break that feints at a metatextual toppling of Shakespearean convention. It would’ve made a provocative ending. Instead, the play retreats to a reworking of its source material, the thematic ties fraying and the dramatic logic disintegrating. The play’s ambitions are more modest than Richard’s, but the result is much the same.

“Teenage Dick”

By Mike Lew. Through April 3; Seattle Rep, 155 Mercer St., Seattle; $17-$72; 206-443-2222;