Review: Theater in the Time of COVID-19 with Teenage Dick

Richard (MacGregor Arney) and Anne (Courtney Rikki Green). Photo by Charles Osgood. Britain’s National Theatre Live has been presenting recorded plays in movie theaters for the past few years so American audiences can watch theater from across the pond. Large opera companies have been broadcasting taped performances in cinemas as well. Now, theater in the time of coronavirus is doing the same. Theater Wit’s innovative artistic director and community leader Jeremy Wechsler saw COVID-19 on a collision course with his production of Mike Lew’s Teenage Dick, a modern retelling of Shakespeare’s Richard III set in an American high school. It’s reported that the Bard wrote King Lear during a bubonic plague outbreak, and theaters are scrambling to find ways to share creative work now. (NOTE: Teenage Dick has been extended; you can view it through May 17. See ticket info below.) The story is set in Roseland High School, home of the Stallions, with the logo on the stage floor like a gym, flanked by a bank of red lockers. Richard Gloucester (MacGregor Arney) has cerebral palsy, so he’s mocked and bullied, and he’s angry about it. His teacher Ms. York (Liz Cloud) encourages him to run for class president against jock Eddie (Ty Fanning) and Christian nerd Clarissa (Kathleen Niemann), while he’s egged on by Barbara “Buck” (Tamara Rozofsky) and longs for dancer classmate Anne (Courtney Rikki Green). He and Anne become friends and she begins to teach him to dance, a seemingly impossible task but Dick eventually gains some confidence and skill. Anne invites him to the Sadie Hawkins Day dance (girls invite boys, remember?). Green and Arney at the Sadie Hawkins dance. Photo by Charles Osgood. “My first step to power is to land a first date,” Richard says (his enemies, unsurprisingly, call him Dick). He also, unsurprisingly, subscribes to Machiavelli, and the tenets of fortune, virtue, selection, and wickedness. Playwright Lew peppers Shakespeare’s quotes through the pop culture references about selfies and Twitter. “Thou art a douchebag,” and Anne’s correct response to “The Lady doth protest too much”: “I think I’m protesting just right,” she says. Anne layers her narrative over Richard’s too, and she laments the world “where women are objects and character foils and plot devices.” “I have agency, I’m above the fray,” she says. “I’m above the gossip. You are the gossip.” Ms. York is helpful to all but at one point threatens to send a student "to the tower." (The principal's office, of course.) Director Balcom directs this high school tragicomedy sensitively and Arney and Green are convincing as teenagers falling in love. (Lew's Dick is a much more sympathetic character than Shakespeare's Richard.)  Liz Cloud adds an authentic grownup element. Wit’s production team is Jake Ganzer as choreographer, with scenic design by Sotirios Livaditis, lighting by Michelle Benda and sound by Eric Backus. Costumes are by Izumi Inaba. During the real-time online post-show talk-back, Wechsler said that during rehearsals he realized, “We weren’t going to make it to opening and I couldn’t bear it,” which he also shares with national CBS News. So he taped the preview with two cameras plus backups. The recording was edited to approximate the in-audience experience of the alley-style staging, including a pre-show curtain speech and post-show toast. MacGregor Arney as Richard. Photo by Charles Osgood. “We had seven days,” he added. “We contacted the author, his agent, the Actors Equity union, and, within three days, we had agreements and confirmations from the actors.” He signed a lot of paperwork, he said, and is paying the actors and artistic team for the entire run. Since two of the actors are otherly-abled, the issue of access and lack thereof came up in the post-show talk. Wheelchair-bound actor Tamara Rozofsky noted that accessibility is on everyone’s mind in the play, and now it’s in the real audience’s thoughts too. Other viewers said they were grateful for the online opportunity, and that theater watched remotely made the experience more meaningful. One of the “civilian” talkback participants said that the virtual experience was not a movie, not Netflix, and not quite theater, but that he’d been looking forward to watching Teenage Dick all week. The appointment viewing really meant a lot to him. “Who would have thought we would have looked to Richard for assistance in this time?” he said. Director Brian Balcom gives notes to the cast during a rehearsal of Teenage Dick. Photo by Charles Osgood. Teenage Dick by Theater Wit as a videostream has been extended through May 17. Tickets are $28 for showings at 8pm Thursday-Saturday and 2:30pm Sunday. The playbill is available here as a PDF. Once tickets are purchased, the box office will send you an email with a link to a message from director Brian Balcom to test the tech (and you can contact the box office with any issues). Then, a few minutes before the scheduled time, you will receive a one-time Vimeo link and unique password. These also work for multiple tickets, where viewers can share the info in multiple locations anywhere in the world for group purchases. Running time is 100 minutes with no intermission. Theater Wit will consider an extension, depending on audience response. When the play ends, you will receive a link to join the talk-back if you wish. Wechsler and most of the actors are live during the talk-back, giving a glimpse into the artistic process (as well as everybody’s living rooms). Theater Wit encourages viewers to watch as near to the assigned start time as possible (although there is a two-hour window to start viewing), so you can participate in the post-show chat in a timely fashion and to emulate the shared live theater experience. There are no forward or backward options because “you can’t do that in real life” (although pausing is available). April 9 Update: The production video has been color-corrected and now offers closed captioning. Theater Wit reports that 50% of the online audience so far has been from Illinois, along with 40% from the rest of the US (including New York, DC, California and Texas), and 10% from elsewhere (including Canada and the UK). Nancy Bishop contributed to this review.
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Karin McKie

Karin McKie is a Chicago freelance writer, cultural factotum and activism concierge. She jams econo.