In “A Clockwork Orange,” Onstage Violence Turns Red Hot

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Jimmy Brooks, Sean Patrick Higgins, Jonno Davies, Matt Doyle and Misha Osherovich in A Clockwork Orange. Photo: Caitlin McNaney.

One of the many wonderful things about the adaptation of Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange, now ingeniously housed at Off-Broadway’s New World Stages, is the categorization challenge it presents. As directed and originally developed by Alexandra Spencer-Jones, artistic director of the UK-based theater company Action To The World, this is a drama very much distilled from the 1961 Burgess novel that predicts a violent future. Right from its startling beginning, however, it could equally be called a dance piece, a team gymnastic display, a dystopian spin on the anti-hero Macheath in the Bertolt Brecht-Kurt Weill musical The Threepenny Opera, or a performance by Chippendales with a tight script.

Devoted Burgess readers — and cinéastes devoted to Stanley Kubrick’s 1971 adaptation — know that A Clockwork Orange is highly stylized as it follows the tough-minded Alex deLarge (Jonno Davies). Burgess was a perfectionist at creating Alex’s world. He was intent on devising a language, on positing the manners and mores of the violent society that he feared was pending. Brought to a stage with the audience on three sides of a sparsely furnished rectangle (no set designer credited), this is a thrillingly respectful amalgam of Burgess’ hurtle into an acidic culture.

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These manners and mores are practiced by young, milk-drinking thugs with a devotion to Ludwig von Beethoven — even if one of the young turks is happy to wield a small plaster bust of the composer as a head-bashing weapon. (Beethoven’s Fifth and Ninth Symphony get played plenty, but Glenn Gregory and Berenice Scott contribute strident original music as well.) The language spoken by these hellions is a blend of new words and old. The men use droog to refer to themselves. They incorporate Russian slang, such as malchik, meaning boy. Did the Yiddish word kishkes — meaning guts — speed by? (The program should include a glossary — more on the language of the play later.)

Spencer-Jones immaculate treatment of the material results in 90-minute, intermissionless dive, one featuring precise, exaggerated behaviors and closely drilled movements. As no choreographer is billed, she must be responsible for every perfectly executed and, in the very best sense of the word, awesome leap, somersault, cartwheel, push-up and thrown punch. Still, Alex’s tale forms the core of the play — he’s introduced as dominant over his gang of four as they brawl so viciously with a group of rivals it would put West Side Story‘s Sharks and Jets to shame. In time, after murdering an opponent, Alex is captured and submitted to a series of incarcerations geared toward rehabilitating him. Whether he does or does change, or else simply outgrows his young, homicidal rebellion, isn’t necessarily presented.

Davies, with his highly commendable snarl and withering sidelong glances, heads a cast of nine. The other players start out as gang members, but as Alex is variously victorious and humiliated, they play other men’s and women’s roles. There is much to be said for the performers cast for this production — Jordan Bondurant, Jimmy Brooks, Matt Doyle, Sean Patrick Higgins, Brian Lee Huynh, Misha Osherovich, Ashley Robinson, Timothy Sekk and Aleksander Varadian — and it’s not just that they’re triple-threat actor-singer-dancers; as an ensemble, they’re off the charts. (Dialect coach Stephen Gabis must have gotten a figurative kick out of this offbeat assignment.)

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The homoeroticism in A Clockwork Orange is also rampant. Although the actors wear black most of the time (Jennifer A. Jacob is the costume coordinator), they’re occasionally go shirtless, and the strapping Davies gets down to skivvies. (If the cast had three more members, the producers could market a 2018 calendar.)

Violence recurs and recurs as A Clockwork Orange rips along, so one can study the stage combat. The left and right hooks are clearly and carefully engineered not to connect, yet there is considerable body contact, much of it executed at very close range. One can spot, however, no visible black-and-blue marks. (OK: at the performance I attended, Davies did appear to have a red blemish on his left foot.)

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Now back to the language of the play. While the speeches tend to be deliberately arch, they’re delivered so crisply but also quickly — so much so that spectators often have little time to register them. You will forgive a critic for wondering if Spencer-Jones might be less concerned with getting across urgent political comments than wowing onlookers with the eye-popping theatrical effects. In other words, is there less here than meets the eye? No: there is only more, more, more.

I first saw this production in London several months ago and was as impressed by its unique mode as I am now. Attending it again stateside, however, offers a broader, more chilling perspective. Ours is a country in which the man who holds our highest office encourages and manufactures violence at every opportunity, and could pass for one of deLarge’s cronies — if he were as menacingly intelligent as one of Burgess’ boys. The future that he worried about in 1961, that Kubrick memorialized back in the ’70s, is closer than ever, it seems. Will we heed the red-alarm warnings of A Clockwork Orange? Or will we need a punch in the face?