The title tyrant of William Shakespeare's Richard III is the kind of evildoer who is so entertaining you can't help but love him. Yet in Mike Lew's Teenage Dick—which transplants the Bard's epic to a contemporary American high school—Richard is a more vulnerable character. Brutally bullied for having cerebral palsy, he doesn't crave power for power's sake. He's hungry for respect.
Lew's revision doesn't always cohere. Yet under the direction of Josh Hecht, Artists Repertory Theatre's production delivers a pleasing blend of funny, ferocious performances and entrancing imagery that mostly outshines the play's flaws, even if it can't entirely overcome them.
The play begins with Richard (Christopher Imbrosciano) slogging through 11th grade at Roseland High School. While he has a steadfast friend in Buck (Tess Raunig), unctuous football star and class president Eddie (Nick Ferrucci) viciously mocks Richard's disability. Seething with rage and ambition, Richard begins a campaign to become senior class president that involves sullying the academic reputation of Clarissa (Alex Ramirez de Cruz), another candidate and devout Christian, and enlisting Eddie's ex-girlfriend Anne (Kailey Rhodes) as an unwitting political puppet.
Lew's writing places a hefty burden on the actors—it requires them to embody characters who are simultaneously ordinary students and quasi-mythical archetypes. Imbrosciano rises to this challenge magnificently, embodying both Richard's grandeur and his youthfulness. It's a blast to watch him make imperious and poetic declarations like, "Well, fiddlesticks to the fiddler who fiddles about!" and he's equally persuasive when Richard turns a school speech into a childish tantrum that concludes with him screaming he is "not to be trifled with!"
Teenage Dick also offers a poignant exploration of Richard's loneliness. A series of scenes in which Anne teaches him a few hip-hop moves in preparation for Roseland's Sadie Hawkins dance exposes the isolation of both characters. As Anne and Richard practice before a massive mirror that seems to divide them from the rest of the school as effectively as a castle wall, it becomes clear they are experiencing something likely to be familiar to anyone who attended high school—the feeling of being a cog in a machine that can be maddeningly resistant to individuality.
As we discover painful truths about Anne's past, the inconsistency of Lew's writing becomes frustrating. The playwright seems torn between his loyalty to the original text and a desire to update Richard III for the 21st century. A monologue in which Anne critiques Shakespeare's sexism, for instance, makes some worthy points, but it's undercut by Lew's decision to turn Anne into more of a victim than she was in the original.
There is also something troubling about Lew's readiness to reduce many of his characters to teen-movie clichés. There's no denying the cast's charisma—de Cruz and Ferrucci make meals out of their underwritten roles. Yet it's disappointing Lew imbues only a few of his characters with recognizably human eccentricities and contradictions.
That doesn't mean Teenage Dick isn't worth attending. It's exhilarating to see a production that features characters written for and played by actors with disabilities (both Imbrosciano and Raunig have cerebral palsy). And the play's satirical point—that high school students are just as serious about petty mind games as politicians and royals can be about sinister ploys—rings true. But Teenage Dick's problems also suggest the legacy of Richard III is nothing if not complicated—and that the quest to make sense of it in a modern context is far from over.
SEE IT: Teenage Dick runs at Artists Repertory Theatre, 1515 SW Morrison St., artistsrep.org. 7:30 pm Wednesday-Saturday, 2 and 7:30 pm Sunday, through Feb. 3. Added shows noon Wednesday, Jan. 23, and 2 pm Saturday, Feb. 2. $30-$60.