Narratives about disabled characters in popular culture, says actor Gregg Mozgala, tend to fall into a narrow slice of tropes — stories of inspiration, stories of overcoming adversity, and stories of dying with dignity. “Where you do see disability represented, either the disabled person literally has no voice, or they’re embodied by an actor who is non-disabled,” says Mozgala, who has cerebral palsy. “So I think theater can be a vehicle to really counter those narratives and investigate them in a live, flesh-and-blood way.”
In 2012, Mozgala founded the theater company The Apothetae, whose mission is to produce work that explores and illuminates the disabled experience and provide opportunities for disabled actors, directors, writers, and designers. One of his early ideas was to create an adaptation of Shakespeare’s “Richard III,” set the story in high school, and call it “Teenage Dick”; he commissioned playwright Mike Lew to tackle the adaptation.
The play, in which Mozgala plays the title character, begins performances at the Calderwood Pavilion Dec. 3 and runs until Jan. 2. It is being produced by the Huntington Theatre Company in association with Washington, D.C.’s Woolly Mammoth Theatre and the Pasadena Playhouse in California.
“Richard III,” about the real-life monarch’s murderous rise to power, features one of the most prominent disabled characters in Western dramatic literature, a king who Shakespeare referred to as a “hunchback.” (After the discovery of Richard’s remains in 2012, experts now believe he suffered from scoliosis.) “In the Elizabethan worldview, disability is associated with monstrosity, sin, the devil,” Mozgala says. “We’re riffing on those ideas [in ‘Teenage Dick’], because in popular culture and even our 21st century view of disability, a lot of those archaic, medieval views on disability still haven’t gone away.”
In re-imagining the story, playwright Lew created the character of a scheming outcast named Richard who’s bullied by Roseland High’s in-crowd because of his cerebral palsy. Despite the protestations of his wisecracking best friend and fellow outcast Barbara “Buck” Buckingham (Shannon DeVido), Richard vows to seek revenge on his tormenters by becoming senior class president. Using some devious methods, he plots his ascendancy by methodically eliminating the other contenders: Eddie (Louis Reyes McWilliams), a rocks-for-brains jock who’s also the junior class president; and the overeager VP Clarissa (Portland Thomas), an evangelical Christian seeking a boost for her college applications.
Transposing “Richard III” to the high school ecosystem offered the chance to explore the challenges of adolescence and the effects of ostracization on the character’s psyche. Mozgala, who won a Lucille Lortel Award for his performance in Martyna Majok’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “The Cost of Living,” has always been fascinated by late adolescence; that’s when his own identity as a disabled person really began to emerge. “I remember having this shock and revelation my senior year of high school that this part of my identity is never going away, and I have no idea what it means to be an adult with a disability and or what my community is.”
“So on top of bad skin and braces on your teeth, I also had to deal with this very visible physical difference. But I had no context, no fluency, no vocabulary, and no role models for what it meant to be disabled out in the world,” he says. “That feeling and anxiety is something that has just stayed with me, and a lot of Richard’s fears in ‘Teenage Dick’ are based on those feelings.”
Indeed, the play grew out of conversations between Lew and Mozgala, who’s been a friend and collaborator of the show’s director, Moritz von Stuelpnagel (a Tony nominee for ”Hand to God”), since they were students at Boston University. Mozgala and costar DeVido, who uses a wheelchair, also provided the playwright with insights.
Before Lew started writing, Mozgala sent him countless YouTube videos from TV and film that portrayed people with disabilities as facile symbols of inspiration.
“There’s this idea that you’re a saint because you’re disabled, but these stories never really look at the person,” Lew says. “So the impetus behind the play was to look at disabled tropes then and now and try to carve out a more human portrayal.”
The cutthroat world of high school, with its cliques, social pecking orders, and bullying, seemed to be an apt setting for the adaptation. “The stakes of high school feel very life or death and grand scale when you’re in the middle of it,” says Lew, whose comedy “Tiger Style! was produced at the Huntington in 2016.
For inspiration, Lew also drew from the teen movie genre, from “Election,” “Clueless,” “Easy A,” and “Booksmart” to those films based on Shakespeare’s plays, such as “10 Things I Hate About You.” “There was something innately tempting about playing with the genre conventions around high school movies, attached to these huge Shakespearean stakes and language that feels out of place today, and smashing those together,” Lew says.
The play blends a contemporary teenage vernacular with Richard’s verbose, witty wordplay and occasionally florid speechifying, along with some direct quotes from “Richard III” and other plays by the Bard. The banter and smack-talking between the characters turns the play into a hilarious — and ruthless — work of dark comedy.
“I’ve always felt that comedy’s a little bit more honest than drama, because when you’re laughing you become more open and are more subject to a sneak attack,” Lew says. “But finding the tone was hard because it starts out fast-paced and comedic and feels safe and then lands in a place that’s a lot more bruising and bloody.”
While Richard breaks bad over the course of the play, the character “opens his heart and soul to the audience and is incredibly vulnerable,” Mozgala says. “He’s not this two-dimensional mustache-twirling villain.”
To cope, Richard has retreated into his intellect, something that Mozgala says he understands in a bone-deep way. “If you’re constantly reminded that something is different about your body, the mind can become an escape and you can build that up,” he says. He recalls performing the “Friends, Romans, countrymen” monologue from “Julius Caesar” in a seventh-grade class. “When I get nervous, my legs used to shake a lot, just from tension. But when I was Marc Antony giving that speech, I realized that I had control of my audience in a different way. That’s when I was first bitten by the acting bug.”
Embodying Richard as a disabled person has been a “cathartic” experience, says Mozgala. “Obviously there’s a connection between my insecurities with my physicality that is similar to Richard’s,” he says. “And I’m always in relationship to an audience because I’m always negotiating people’s looks and stares.”
Most importantly, Mozgala is thrilled that productions of “Teenage Dick” are providing opportunities for disabled actors to play complex, fully human characters — and to be able to chronicle the stories of their own community. “If this is a part of our history, then we should be able to have some ownership and agency in the retelling of it.”
Presented by the Huntington Theatre Company. At the Calderwood Pavilion, Boston Center for the Arts, Dec. 3-Jan. 2. Tickets start at $25. 617-266-0800, www.huntingtontheatre.org
Christopher Wallenberg can be reached at email@example.com.