If you are asking, starry droogs, “What’s it going to be then, eh?” and you’re up for viddying malchickies tolchoking others in the guluva, the odd in-out-in-out, you know, a malenky bit of ultra violence, look no further than Scena’s production of what some would term Anthony Burgess’ “immoral classic.”
Artistic Director Robert McNamara premieres the complete play with music, opening Scena’s 25th season and marking the 50th year of the novel’s publication, showing us that as a society we haven’t moved much past the world this cult classic portrayed.
Before there were teenage carjacks, drive by shootings, and institutional carnage broadcast on our television nightly, and before punk was co-opted into more of a fashion-and-music style while the dead-end originals roamed Britain’s public housing in destructive displays of their disaffection, there was the generation of Britain’s equally disaffected teddy boys.
But Anthony Burgess swore he got the idea for his dystopian novel when he saw well-dressed, alienated youth on the streets of Leningrad engaged in gang violence. He rolled “nadsat” (teenage) hooliganism into what he showed to be a global phenomenon, even creating a language that is a mash of Russian, cockney rhyming slang, and bad Shakespearean Renaissance-Fair speak.
Viewing Kubrick’s 1972 film version when it was first released, I’ll admit I was one of many who was shocked but also entranced by the stunning visual and aural world it portrayed, including a graphic rape sequence choreographed to “Singing in the Rain” along with other similar conjurings of violence to the thunderous soundtrack of Beethoven’s Ninth. Those cinematic droogs not only excelled in sexual exploitation and physical abuse of their fellow man (and woman), but demonstrated callous indifference to the pain and suffering of others. Yet they did it all with such panache that I took away from the experience what amounted to a rallying anthem for youthful rebellion against societal hypocrisy.
This Scena production, so up close and personal at the H Street Playhouse, is more gritty and more exposed than Kubrick’s rendition. In some ways, it therefore redresses the balance of Burgess’ novel gone missing in the glitzier film. I was delighted to rediscover the story at the hands of director McNamara.
The show, staged on a set by Michael C. Stepowany, produced just the right atmosphere of a late night drug-and-graffiti-filled underworld of a futuristic moloko (milk) bar.
The underlying moral message rose to the surface when the characters of the scientist, the priest, and the social worker/parole officer reveal their motives and their means to rehabilitate the wayward Alex. Played by Jim Jorgensen, Michael Miyazaki and Theo Hadjimichael, these three characters define both the weakness and the repercussions of how to take societal control of the problem of youthful violence.
Jorgensen plays Dr. Brodsky who has a scientific “cure,” based on Skinner’s social modification theories. His character’s willingness to suspend all rights and destroy the integrity of the individual raises Burgess’ own concern for behavioral reprogramming, an ethical issue that we are still debating with the advance of new psychotropic drugs.
Miyazaki plays the prison priest who wants to claim a convert, but his character also voices the importance of free will against brainwashing that was part of Burgess’ original intent for the novel. Miyazaki’s position is echoed by Sisssel Bakken as Dr. Branom, and both go up against the coolly rational but morally bankrupt (or at least blind) Dr. Brodsky.
In one of the few truly courageous “moral moments” of the play, Bakken as Dr. Branom quits Brodsky’s experiment, having become conscious of the potential downside effects of their “experiment.” Hadjimichael plays the sweating, manipulative Deltoid, whose overbearing threats and slimy quasi-sexual approaches are as much part of the dangerous “gaming” as Alex’s moves dodging the law or any societal “norms. “
The actors brought moments of clarity and the necessary intensity to this provocative tale. However, it may have been in part due to opening night jitters, but the problem was consistency throughout the acting ensemble. Not only were the performers unevenly matched against each other, but within each character the actors were also inconsistent in their ability to make truthful choices. Instead, several commented on their own performances or showed unclear or poor instincts at key moments, making for a jarring theatrical experience.
Jorgensen’s strong performance in the first act as the writer who gets jumped by Alex and the gang and whose wife is raped, petered out as if he were an athlete run out of steam in the scene when Alex ends back at his house. Miyazaki weakened his important voice in the program by going silly and camp. Buck O’Leary seemed to lose his way at times, although as Minister “of the Inferior” he needed to anchor the key role of the wily politician whose motives are to cut the budget by emptying out prisons. I would hope McNamara might steer the ensemble to trust the material as he sharpens the performances.
Additionally, the actors’ ability with accents were all over the place. It made the fast-paced dialogue sometimes hard to follow (despite my having lived in England for six years.)
If unevenness was true in the acting, it was even more so in the singing. McNamara stressed in the program and a few closing remarks that this is a “play with music” (and not, I presume he was saying, a musical.) Mulling this over afterwards, I think I understand that it may have been an intentional choice by McNamara and Music Director Gregory Watkins to let the sound be rough and ragged in order to be true to the world of these malchickies. Nonetheless, if you are a musical theatre lover, be aware that there seems to have been little attention given to tight entrances or even accurate pitches. The overall effect was more Bremen Town Musicians braying than what could accurately be described as singing.
The strongest members of the cast are the four droogs themselves: Chris Aldrich (Pete), Mitchell Grant (Georgie), Arman Sindoni (Dim), and Chris Stinson (Alex). Dressed all in black street gear, all loaded with silver metal chains and studs, they create a very believable team of rowdies. They handle well the droogie-patois, the swaggering, and the fighting choreography (the last set nicely by Paul Gallagher), as do the Billy-Boy gang members Yoni Gray, Terrence Heffernan, Connor Hogan, and Elliott Kashner.
As Alex, Stinson has the big emotional journey and he fills it with strong physical and emotional choices. He goes from being a bullying punk and vicious leader of a pack, to putting on the charm and gaming both the stage world and the audience, to being reduced by the hospital experiment to a sniveling, pathetic victim. It is quite remarkable that this young actor, after pounding us with image after image of violence, is able to win audience members to his side. In the second act, Stinson makes the case that his whole rough persona had been a necessary survival tactic in a world morally bankrupt and dangerous for anyone not up to striking out first. It’s great casting. Stinson’s round face, washed of the iconic black eye makeup of droogie Alex, turns the character into a cherubic waif who needs understanding and even protecting.
A Clockwork Orange
Closes November 18, 2012
H Street Playhouse
1365 H Street NE
Washington, DC 20002
2 hours with 1 intermission
Tickets: $25 – $35
Thursdays thru Sundays
It’s disturbing, but Alex’s treatment by his fellow droogs is made more horrific and compelling than what he and his louts have dealt to others. The scene when Alex comes home to find his family has rented out his bed and replaced him in their hearts is both comic yet heartbreaking and well played by the careless, flirty mum, (Charlotte Akin), and the passive, weakened and broken pater, portrayed with great nuance in a small cameo role by Terrence Heffernan.
McNamara is known for bringing strong international theatre to Washington, and he doesn’t flinch from serving up the darker and dirtier sides of humanity. It is clear he has had a long-standing passion to tackle this work of Burgess, and opening night demonstrated that his production, while still needing shaping, bears signs of doing justice to the author who was linguistically brilliant and musically inclined.
There’s nothing pretty about this show, oh my droogies, but if you’ve got the yarbles, get over to Northeast and Scena’s Korova Milkbar scene. You may need to bring chain, nozh or britvas if you don’t want to get tolchoked. Burgess stared eyes-wide-open at the signs of a disintegrating society. And McNamara’s production deserves your attention in a serious matter. What’s it going to be then, eh?
A Clockwork Orange. Book by Anthony Burgess. With Music and Lyrics by Anthony Burgess. Directed by Robert McNamara. Featuring Chris Stinson, Jim Jorgensen, Charlotte Akin, Buck O’Leary, Elliott Kashner, Sissel Bakken, Chris Aldrich, Armand Sindoni, Theo Hadjimichael, Connor Hogan, Michael Miyazaki, Yoni Gray, Mitchell Grant, Hannah Burkhauser, Tom Byrne, and Terence Heffernan. U/S: Kim Curtis and Joey Ibanez. Lighting: Marianne Meadows, Set: Michael Stepowany, Costumes: Alisa Mandel, Sound/composer: Erik Trester, Fight Choreographer: Paul Gallagher, Musical director: Gregory Watkins, Vocal coach: Sissel Bakken, Props: Jessica Wade, Stage manager: April E. Carter, Choreographer/Asst Director: Raquis D. Petree, 2ne Asst Director/Literary Manager: Anne Nottage, Costume Assist: Natalia Zhiteneva, Production manager: Anthony Adams, Dramaturg: Gabriele Jakobi, and Fight coach: Connor Hogan.
Produced by Scena Theatre. Reviewed by Susan Galbraith.