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Theater Wit brings superlative play to home viewers

Chicago stage's original work breaks barriers

Thanks to the generosity of press relations director Jay Kelly, i was able to wrangle one of 98 tickets to Theater Wit’s remote online viewing of their latest production, “Teenage Dick,” in its Chicago debut. (In actuality, the last live performance was recorded March 16, and capped at only 40 audience members.) But the show must go on – if only online; admirably Theater Wit is committed to paying full performance rates to all cast and crew for the duration of the run.

“Teenage Dick” is a sharp, gut-punching, perceptive drama bordering on comedy and based on Shakespeare's most disabled historical figure, Richard III (long a favorite of mine). As written by the award-winning Mike Lee, it’s an ingenious, intense, raw and captivating piece; as directed by Brian Balcolm, it’s a genuine, well-paced, all engrossing production.

My heart was brought to a standstill several times, and not just by MacGregor Arney’s portrayal of Richard (constantly braced for that “ice patch in winter fall”), but many times by the extensively talented ensemble of artists with and without disabilities. This is Balcolm’s first full professional production in Chicago; it won’t be his last.

The plot is a modern adaptation, set at Roseland High School (“now is the winter of our discontent made glorious summer at Roseland High”). Sixteen-year-old Richard is determined to become the senior class president; he is continually mocked, bullied and picked on because of his cerebral palsy. His schemes are defined by revenge and cons; his quest for love alternates with his thirst for power. It’s a pretty brutal high school environment, but there are some perceptive scenes of levity before the descent and inevitable climax we wish weren’t ahead.

There is some deliciously full-on humor: the teacher’s diatribe about the budget for the football team’s bleachers versus the drama club’s costumes; the Sadie Hawkins dance plotting; the references to John Hughes movies – all will make you chuckle. But there’s also much richness and fluent pain present: “All That Spasz” and Richard’s hopes and decision to run a “clean campaign” are crushed with the catcalls, sarcasm and cruelty of the ensuing election debate.

The extraordinary cast of six never lets up. Let’s start with MacGregor Arney as Richard. He is a strong and masterful actor. His “one leg is king” character is intelligent, broken, likable and understandable with a focused, articulate and brilliant command of his lines and scheming monologues. Arney’s stage presence is welcomed; he “acts out the role that’s been writ” superbly.

Courtney Rikki Green’s Anne dazzles. As an actress, she conveys a broken and tragic character longing to escape. She also happens to be a graceful dancer.

Ty Fanning’s villainous Eddie is the volatile, popular junior class president running for reelection. He’s the mouthy and cruel high school jock, and Fanning is believably capable of throwing the 60-yard pass his character boasts about. You won’t like him much.

Kate Nieman is a spitfire; her Clarissa is a willing player to Richard’s schemes. Her “you’re out of order" justice for all reenactment is both spirited and teen angsted.

Equally vivacious is Liz Cloud, the misguided vocal savior Elizabeth, who wants the best for Richard and who believed he was “one of the good ones.” She is a delightful compilation of your most memorable and favorite high school teachers.

Unwilling to “fly beyond” her disability is Tamara Rozofsky’s Buck. Bound to a wheelchair, she’s Richard’s voice of conscience, and as portrayed by Rozofsky, she’s a gutsy, independent and incredibly direct character.

Even the technical aspects of this production are remarkably flawless. The scenic design by Sotirios Livadtis is simple, clever and all that is truly needed: the Roseland High School’s stallion mascot on the gym floor, the two banks of red lockers, the sports banners, bulletin-boarded posters, and those awful chair desks. Paired with Izumi Inaba’s perfectly appropriate costuming, Michelle Benda’s light design, and Eric Backus’ high school environment sounds, it all works. And watch out for Jake Ganzer’s skillful and enjoyable "Dancing With the Stars" number at the Hawkins dance.

Despite the very much appreciated and exciting live recording of “Teenage Dick,” I do miss the human connection, the spontaneity and the conversations of a live audience. As Theater Wit’s Artistic Director Jeremy Wechsler so aptly stated, “Theater audiences and artists are collateral damage in this global catastrophe.” But maybe, hopefully, this is the way to keep theater alive and accessible in these horrific times. I think I just witnessed such a start.

[When not in her recliner watching theatrical productions or attending Zoom meetings, Regina Belt-Daniels hopes soon to continue to do what she loves best: act, direct, travel with her husband, write theater reviews, and serve enthusiastically on theater boards.]

If you view

WHAT: Theater Wit's Shakespeare-inspired production of "Teenage Dick"

WHERE: Remote online viewing limited to 98 viewers

WHEN: 8 p.m. Thursday, Friday and Saturday; 2:30 p.m. Sunday through April 19; 105 minutes, no intermission

COST: $28 per ticket

INFO: TheaterWit.org, 773-975-8150

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