Welcome to New World Stages Theatre Four. Welcome to a Brechtian black box presentation of testosterone driven madness. Welcome to a space where the aesthetics of naturalism as theatrical illusion is nuked out of existence and the poetics of epic theater abounds in its place.
As you take your seat you will swear you hear the announcers call of a WWE wrestling match. Sitting there in that heavily raked bowl of a space you'll be subjected to pounding music, a heavy dose of atmospheric fog, and fixed and focused lights that keep the space lit yet dim. You'll be surrounded by a forced to be too loud crowd, and hawkers of peanuts and drinks. Until an unannounced street gang of four begin to make their way down the aisle. The thespian cage match is about to begin.
They call themselves Droogs. They speak in a patois of their own making called Nadsat which is a mix of Cockney slang, Shakespearian poetry, and Russian vocabulary. They drink gads and gads of a drugged milk drink they call Moloko. They fight amongst themselves. They fight with others of their kind. They appear merciless. A gay man is beaten and raped. A rich woman is raped and killed. This cacophony of ultraviolence dance fighting galore is all done to a soundtrack of Beethoven, Bowie, and Frankie Goes to Hollywood, just to name a few.
An ensemble of male actors Jimmy Brooks, Matt Doyle, Sean Patrick Higgins, Brian Lee Huynh, Misha Osherovich, Ashley Robinson, Timothy Sekk, Alekssander Varadian is led by the impressive Jonno Davies as Alex deLarge. Other than Davies this ensemble will morph into a variety of characters, both male and female, that tell Alex’s tale and in that they all do an exemplary job within the parameters they’ve been given.
Our ne’er-do-well anti-hero is eventually imprisoned where he becomes Prisoner 6655321 and a subject of experimental aversion therapy to cure him of his evil ways and turn him into a guinea pig of government reform. His love of music is turned against him. It only serves to remind him of mental horrors forcibly projected into his mind. It results in his ability to manifest violence being taken from him. The thought alone pains him. He becomes a weakling before his enemies.
The newly reformed Alex is granted early release as a reward for subjecting himself to the cure of the state. His return brings him to a changed home life. His parents reject him more than usual. There’s a new boarder occupying his old room and his space in the family unit. His former Droog playmates are now on the side of law enforcement. Ex-villains being used to catch real villains. Alex ends up becoming a stranger in his own strange land and in his closing monologue, delivered directly to us, he reminds us that there are many Alex’s out there, there are also Droogs to be wary of, and they are creations of our own making.
Anthony Burgess is credited with writing the play though he passed in 1993 without actually writing a version for the stage. His dystopian novel, initially inspired by the violent assault on his wife Lynn who was robbed, beaten, and raped by US Army deserters during a World War II blackout, was first published in 1962. The film adaptation of his work by Stanley Kubrick followed nearly a decade later in 1971 but the singularly violent tone it set was created from the American version of the novel which had its most important twenty first chapter removed. The final chapter, in a structure set by Burgess to correspond with the established number of years in a young life, is one of redemption and change for Alex and seems to be restored in this interpretation.
Here in the twenty first century the reprobates in this theatrical incarnation appear more punkhipster chic than truly dangerous theatrical architypes. Even the once shocking violence while still disturbing in a live setting seems to be tame by the standards our current society has become all too familiar with as of late.
Alexandra Spencer-Jones’s all-encompassing directing style here is predicated on faster, bigger, louder, and more grotesque. This lack of finesse results in a very loud one note presentation. The complex jabberwocky like poetry of language that marks Burgess’s work gets lost as it blows passed the ear. The humor in this intended satire becomes so broad that it only registers in the lowest common denominators. The ensemble is forced into overmodulation and with everything playing at level eleven on the amp there’s no place to go but down, and down while refreshing when it does make a rare appearance, reads as weakness here.
Epic theatre exists in the realm of disconcerting alienation. Actors playing multiple roles to blur the lines between protagonists and antagonists. Focused specific lighting forces the eye to see only what is meant to be seen. Abstract scenery deconstructs the normal. The clash of modern and classical music further confuses the senses. All these tricks are on display here, and while they are successful individually they fail to coalesce and deliver a whole. Bertolt Brecht once said that art is not a mirror with which to reflect reality but a hammer with which to shape it. A hammer would have been useful here instead of the unwieldy use of an ax.
New World Stages 340 West 50th Street New York, NY 10019 $59 - $89 www.aclockworkorangeplay.com 212-239-6200 Sept 25 – Jan 6, 2018
From an original post on TheaterScene/The Fire Island Sun.