A note on the first page of Mike Lew’s script for Teenage Dick, a darkly hilarious modern retelling of Shakespeare’s “Richard III,” reads: “Cast disabled actors for Richard and Buck. They exist and they’re out there.” With the ongoing controversy over nondisabled actors playing characters with disabilities it’s refreshing to see Lew so clearly lay it out from the get-go. [See “’The Upside’ is No ‘Intouchables’”]
Last night I had a front-row seat to Teenage Dick at Artists Repertory Theatre in Portland, Oregon. True to Lew’s direction, the performance stars two actors with actual disabilities — Christopher Imbrosciano as Richard Gloucester and Tess Raunig as Barbara “Buck” Buckingham. Directed by Josh Hecht, the play takes us on a 90-minute ride through Roseland High School, where Richard, a power-hungry 17-year-old with cerebral palsy, threatens to overthrow anyone in his way to becoming senior class president. He even alienates the only friend he has, a delightful tell-it-like-it-is wheelchair user named Buck. Richard’s biggest rival is the popular football quarterback. To destroy him, Richard schemes to win over the heart of his ex-girlfriend, Anne Margaret.
As a chair user, it was exciting to watch two nuanced and complex characters with disabilities inhabit the stage. And though the play doesn’t shy away from talking about disability, it doesn’t revolve around it either. Teenage Dick is really about the messed-up power dynamics of high school, where much like a Shakespeare play, everything can feel life or death.
Imbrosciano, who has CP, is a force as the conniving-yet-endearing Richard. “I’m excited for audiences to see our show,” shares Imbrosciano. “I believe it challenges the perception of disability, and most of all it’s really, really funny. I cannot think of another play where two physically disabled characters are having the type of conversations that Buck and Richard are having on stage, and that for me is really truly exciting.”
Raunig, who has mixed spastic and athetoid cerebral palsy, is superb as Buck. “My favorite thing about playing Buck,” says Raunig, “is that she is extremely self-aware, and always speaks her truth. I wish I could have been more like her in high school. I probably would have been a lot more well-adjusted.”
Teenage Dick was developed and commissioned by The Apothetae, a theater company in New York City dedicated to nurturing plays that explore and illuminate the disabled experience. After its world premiere last year at The Public Theatre, Jesse Green of The New York Times, who gave it a “Critics Pick,” wrote: “I found it exhilarating. It suggests how much richer the theater will be when it is truly open to artists of all kinds. Not just because those artists deserve employment but also because the canon of classics deserves reimagining to match our world.”
If you live in the Portland area, go see Teenage Dick. If not, look and hope for a local staging. Not only will you be supporting talented actors with disabilities, but it’s a really good play.
Teenage Dick runs through February 3, 2019. Buy Tickets: 503/241.1278 or www.artistsrep.org. $60 regular price; $30 preview/student/under 35. For special discounts:
• Use the code TD40 for $40 tickets at any point during the run of show
• Use the code SATMAT for $25 tickets to Saturday matinee performances
• Use the code TD25 for $25 tickets to any Tuesday performance during the run of the show
• There are also 20 tickets for $20 available at every performance using code 20for20
• All Sunday night performances are Sliding Scale, where tickets start at $10 (no code necessary)