Trust the theater community to come up with a creative way to survive in a time of plague.
A recent New York Times article entitled “No Theater? No Problem. Plays and Musicals Switch to Streaming.” describes how companies all over the country are making plans to tape and broadcast productions so theater-goers can see them without compromising the “social distancing” mandated by COVID-19. While platforms such as BroadwayHD long have offered catalogs for streaming, this initiative is a new and urgent way to preserve shows that were playing or about to open when the industry closed down.
First in Chicago, and possibly the country, to implement the plan is Theater Wit. The local premiere of “Teenage Dick,” Mike Lew's take on Shakespeare's “Richard III” transplanted to contemporary Roseland High, opened Wednesday evening. Originally, audiences were going to be offered a choice of seeing the show at the theater or live-streamed at home, but that changed as the pandemic spread. So the March 16 performance was taped with a limited audience of friends, staffers, and family, then edited on March 17 to open on March 18.
Here's how it works. The schedule is the same as it would be if the performances were live: You buy your tickets through the box office, and audiences are limited to 98 people, which happens to be the same number as the theater seats. On the day of your chosen performance, you'll get an email with a link to test your iOs, Android, computer, or smart TV setup by visiting www.theaterwit.org/rv/test and following the instructions. It will have troubleshooting contact information and a link to set up GoToMeeting to attend the post-show discussion in the “virtual lobby.”
About 10 minutes before show time, you'll get a second email with a private, personalized URL and password to watch the play on Vimeo. If you're a little late starting it, don't worry: You won't miss the
beginning. Once you start, you can pause, say to go to the restroom, but you can't rewind or fast forward, because those functions have been disabled. At the end of every performance, the video stream will conclude and no longer be accessible. However, if you miss the show, you can contact the box office to get a voucher for a future slot.
So what's it like? Nothing can really replace live theater, but this “Teenage Dick” is better than I expected, thanks to Lew's clever script, Brian Balcom's careful direction, and a couple of first-rate performances. It was videotaped using two stationary cameras, so our attention isn't manipulated as much as by film, but it definitely is limited compared with what we could see on site.
The main premise is that whip-smart Richard wants to be Roseland High's class president, but he's an outsider scorned and even taunted by the popular kids because he has cerebral palsy, as does actor MacGregor Arney, who plays him with a complex combination of anger, self-hatred, contempt for others, hubris, and touching vulnerability. Richard's one friend is Barbara “Buck” Buckingham (Tamara Rozofsky), who is in a wheelchair, but is better at dealing with her disability than he is with his. His rivals for the presidency are deeply religious Clarissa (Kathleen Niemann), who resents the fact that teacher Elizabeth York (Liz Cloud) seems to favor Richard, and more importantly Eddie (Ty Fanning), the current president and rather dim-witted class jock.
The centerpiece of Richard's scheme is to convince Anne (Courtney Rikki Green), the most popular girl in school and Eddie's ex-girlfriend, to invite him to the Sadie Hawkins dance, thus raising his status and getting revenge on Eddie simultaneously. As in Shakespeare, he uses a variety of arguments to seduce her, the most compelling being that she will be perceived by everyone as a good person.
Then, something unexpected happens. When Anne, who can't wait to get out of high school and go to New York to pursue her dance career, tries to teach Richard to do some hip-hop, she develops real feelings for him and reveals her deepest secrets. He can't believe his good fortune and reciprocates—but can't decide whether to stick to his scheme, which involves betraying her trust, or to let his goal of the presidency go and keep the girl.
The scenes between Arney's Richard and Green's guarded Anne are the best of the evening, and even provide unusual insight into what it is like to have a disability. Anne asks Richard how the way he moves feels to him, and he replies: “You know how sometimes in winter when you hit an ice patch you didn't know was there, how you brace yourself before you're about to slip on the ice?...That's what it's like for me all the time.”
On the other hand, the play doesn't delve very deeply into whether Richard's disability is the cause of his Machiavellian behavior or the result of how he is treated because of it. And the violent ending, while as Shakespearean as some of Richard's language (a mash-up of other literary references, too), comes across as out-of-keeping with the overall tone.
Sotirios Livaditis's scenic design, Michelle E. Bend's lighting, and Izumi Inaba's costumes capture the
high school setting simply but effectively. Unfortunately, the cameras don't allow us to see Joe Burke's projection design, which seems to consist mainly of tweets, which have a crucial role in the action.
I somehow missed the pre-show welcome and mini-tour with artistic director Jeremy Wechsler but stuck around for the post-show discussion, which lasted at least 45 minutes and contributed relatively little to my understanding or appreciation of the show. It really needs a moderator to get—and keep—the conversation going. Other than that, “Teenage Dick” was a relatively satisfying experience, though some of the acting was overly broad, especially for video.