A Clockwork Orange

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Editorial Review

‘A Clockwork Orange’ changes gears
By Jane Horwitz
Thursday, November 8, 2012

“A Clockwork Orange” may have outlived its power to shock, at least onstage.

That’s the case, anyway, with Scena’s quick and stylish but low-hemoglobin production at H Street Playhouse.

Anthony Burgess’s 1962 novel and Stanley Kubrick’s 1971 film adaptation can still raise goose bumps, pitting as they do in vividly surreal terms the prospect of uncontrolled youth violence suppressed by state-enforced mind control. Burgess’s 1987 stage adaptation of his book, as revived by Scena’s artistic director, Robert McNamara, seems more an exercise in style and ideas. It lacks the horror.

The play is not exactly a musical, but it contains many interludes set mostly to themes from Beethoven because Alex (Chris Stinson), the delinquent protagonist, loves the tunes of “Ludwig van” more than anything. The musical bits come off with uneven panache -- a quartet singing an excerpt from the “Ode to Joy” in Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony does well. When the full ensemble performs a few bars of anything, the results are less dependable.

The fight choreography by Paul Gallagher, on the other hand, comes off with a flourish but an unthreatening one, even though the scenes show Alex and his cohorts rumbling with another gang, mugging a married couple, sexually assaulting the man’s wife and murdering an old woman.

A punk more than a decade before punk became a cultural movement, Alex sports a thick, black sunburst of liner around one eye, setting him apart as the leader of his gang. They go about their anarchic business in pork-pie hats, T-shirts bearing Marxist slogans, and black pants, their duds perforated with metal buckles and pins (costumes are by Alisa Mandel). Burgess’s wonderful slang weds Cold War-inspired chunks of English and Russian with occasional bursts of Elizabethan-style chat.

Stinson’s verbally and physically nimble Alex seems brilliant. His quick-witted banter and his love of Beethoven might make a promising candidate for reformation, but in Burgess’s cautionary tale, the cure is more reprehensible than the disease. After Alex kills the old woman, he’s arrested and sent to prison. The minister of the interior (Buck O’Leary) wants to try a new “technique” on him -- a form of aversion therapy that will render the juvenile thug unable to commit violence without experiencing extreme nausea. The prison governor (Charlotte Akin) has her doubts, and the prison priest (Michael Miyazaki), who drinks a lot but still talks sense, ponders the concept of enforced goodness vs. free will.

A return to form for ‘Clockwork’
By Lavanya Ramanathan
Friday, October 5, 2012

In a cramped rehearsal room at Georgetown University, a cast of a dozen is rolling through the opening scenes of Scena Theatre’s new production of “A Clockwork Orange.”

The actors, nearly all men, punch and kick one another in slow, violent bursts. They drag their female castmates across the floor. The menace is palpable -- until, without warning, they all break into song.

A Clockwork Orange,” as author Anthony Burgess envisioned it, was never supposed to look like Stanley Kubrick’s modish 1971 film, one of the best-known takes on the dystopian world in which young people, epitomized by the charming but morally bankrupt hell-boy Alex, are prone to inexplicable acts of violence. (The government, too, has a dark side: It’s prone to slapping down the uprisings with morally questionable tactics.)

The show that Scena is mounting at the H Street Playhouse, which opens for previews next week, is the version of “A Clockwork Orange” that Burgess wrote himself, decades after his book shot to fame.

Scena director Robert McNamara describes the play, published in 1987, as Burgess’s “riposte” -- his response to his critics, fans and emulators. Burgess, a lifelong composer, also infused the play with music, namely Beethoven, to which he wrote his own lyrics.

“What he wrote,” says McNamara, “is basically his vision of his text, how he wanted it performed during his lifetime, after his lifetime and by anyone else who came after him.”

It just took Burgess 25 years to write it. In his preface to the play, Burgess offered a laundry list of grievances about the published novel: The American publishers lopped off the final chapter, leaving a new ending that Burgess thought was toothlessly optimistic. There were a growing number of unauthorized stage versions. And of the landmark Kubrick film, the author moaned that it too explicitly showed the violence and rape that his own language had elegantly (and sometimes, for effect, inelegantly) couched.

“I was bound to have misgivings about the film,” Burgess wrote, “and one of the banes of my later life has been the public assumption that I had anything to do with it.”

With the infrequently performed play, the challenge isn’t deciphering Burgess’s made-up dialect, “Nadsat,” which McNamara describes as the play’s “teenage patois.” The language, he says, is as unobtrusive (and thrilling, even) as Shakespeare’s language can be for modern audiences.

More difficult for the scrappy company is the fact that the play is thick with music. Scena will use a recorded score, but that leaves puckish Chris Stinson, who plays the sociopathic Alex, the task of not only terrorizing every innocent in his periphery, but winningly belting out tunes, too.

The H Street Playhouse space on H Street NE is up for lease, so the show will be the last Scena performance in the black-box theater, where the company has been planted for 31 / 2 years. McNamara remains upbeat, saying the company will likely pop up again down the block at the Atlas Performing Arts Center. For now, he’s focusing on “A Clockwork Orange,” which he has wanted to produce for decades.

Burgess, who died in 1993, had “a love-hate relationship with his own book,” McNamara says. It made him famous, but he felt misunderstood. “So this is the one he wants you to see.”