The infamous Alex, from Anthony Burgess’ classic novel A Clockwork Orange, and his band of “droogs” are loose on the city streets once again for a night of “ultraviolence,” murder and rape. Only this time, in a production by the Studio Theatre, their violent actions fail to shock, inspire or truly convey Burgess’ commentary on human nature onstage.
The production is based on Burgess’ script adaptation of his acclaimed novella. The story revolves around a young English boy named Alex in the distant future with his violent group of friends who all speak the Nadsat language, a dialect Burgess created combining Cockney and Russian slang.
After being tricked by his group of “droogs,” the law-breaking Alex is sent to prison, where over time he becomes part of a radical new study called the Ludovico Technique, under the guidance of the semi-mad scientist Dr. Brodsky. Alex undergoes the conditioning treatment, which turns him into a creature unable to choose, forcing him to do only good.
Burgess’ original story deals with the moral theme of man’s ability to choose right from wrong versus the social attempt to eliminate crime and wrongdoing in the world by treating the symptom, not the disease.
Studio Theatre’s production is directed by Mike Chamberlin and stars Scot McKenzie, who has played the violent hooligan Alex in Shakespearean productions on both sides of the Atlantic. McKenzie gives a performance clearly inspired by that of Malcolm McDowell, who starred as Alex in the film version of A Clockwork Orange by director Stanley Kubrick. The performance follows McDowell’s down to accent and facial expressions.
While McKenzie’s performance is strong, nothing new or exciting comes out of the role. Audiences appear to be watching the man from the film, and the role becomes predictable and static.
The rest of the cast is fair at best, and the only true stand-out performance comes from Suzanne Richard’s portrayal of Dr. Brodsky. Richard plays Brodsky with a tinge of the classic mad-scientist clich?, adding both an eerie demeanor and a light-hearted, humorous delivery.
The production de-emphasizes Burgess’ ideas regarding the free will of man along with the consequences of taking away man’s ability to choose. Instead, the play centers on the violent nature of Alex and his gang. While the novel and film, both titled A Clockwork Orange, shocked and frightened audiences with its portrayal of violence and rape, the stage version does not even strike a nerve.
The fight sequences, major parts of the story, are obviously choreographed, an unavoidable aspect of theater production. But these sequences drag, and the violence fails to shock a modern audience. Only a rape sequence makes the audience feel the slightest discomfort, and much of the play becomes a monotony of swinging fists, stomping feet and Cockney-accented shouts.
Failing to startle with violence, the production struggles to shock with full frontal male and female nudity. Whether or not Burgess wrote the script in this fashion is unknown, but in the second act, when a seductive woman and the temptation for evil confront the conditioned Alex, the stage turns into a burlesque strip-show, complete with campy music and a raucous dance number. The message of Alex’s loss of free will is lost in a sea of uncalled-for voyeurism.
Other problems with the production stem from the inability of live theater to capture the inner thoughts and emotions of the characters, as well as the stunning visuals that stand out in the film version.
Internal monologue is impossible in the play, and while McKenzie often vocalizes the narrator’s thoughts, much of the impact of the novel and the film is simply absent. Fans of the film and novella may feel unfulfilled by the play, while those unfamiliar with the works will be lost altogether.
Although some scenes, such as ones that depict the torturous Ludovico Technique, are ingeniously created, the rest of the play lacks the intense and imaginative visuals that made Kubrick’s film so popular.
The play does end strongly. The original Burgess novella contained 21 chapters, the last of which was absent from the first U.S. release and not portrayed in the popular motion picture. McKenzie acts out the final important chapter in the play as a brilliant monologue. The star proves himself a talented actor by bringing a strong finale to the production, in which he delivers Burgess’ important and meaningful last message.
The play’s final monologue might draw fans of the novella and film versions of A Clockwork Orange. But after sitting through almost three hours of fairly mediocre theater, that last reward is hardly worth the wait.