A Clockwork Orange
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
January 19, 2005
This is the third time Joe Tantalo and his excellent company, Godlight Theatre, have mounted Anthony Burgess's A Clockwork Orange. The first time I saw it, I was struck most by the piece's stirring indictment of violence in our culture. But this time around, though that message still rings out loud and clear, I was even more aware of the play's warnings against passive-aggressive bureaucracy—of a government willing to institutionalize something bad for the sake of a stated public good, and eager to pacify its citizens at whatever cost to their individual freedom in order to maintain control over them.
Interesting how times have changed in just a few years; and evidence of the strength of this material, which continues to challenge Tantalo and his collaborators in exciting ways as they re-examine and re-interpret this work in yet another taut, thrilling production.
Set in an unnamed future time and place (how far distant, one wonders?), A Clockwork Orange is about a boy named Alex who is into two things—violence and Beethoven. The soaring music of the latter is his religion, more or less; the former is his only vocation (he's just 14 when the story begins), and he and his mates Dim, Georgie, and Pete spend their evenings carousing at milk bars (where the cow juice is laced with evil-sounding drugs) and wandering the urban landscape intimidating people and beating them up. The stakes go up, as they will: soon after we meet Alex and his "Droogs" (as he calls them), they've graduated to rape and, eventually, murder. For this last crime, Alex is tagged as sole perpetrator whilst his cowardly gang abandons him. He is arrested, tried, and jailed.
Two years later, the now 16-year-old Alex learns of an experimental new treatment that may enable him to win release from prison. It's a brainwashing technique, developed by a sinister and very single-minded scientist called Brodsky, whereby impulses to do violence are counteracted, a la Pavlov's dogs, by severe feelings of nausea, thus rendering the subject impotent (and physically ill) against his rage. The treatment consists of a serum plus overexposure to extremely violent images (films of torture, scenes from Nazi concentration camps, etc.). Brodsky uses Beethoven on the soundtrack of these movies, and so a sad and unintended side effect of Alex's "rehabilitation" is his loss of the one beautiful thing that might have saved him—i.e., the music of his idol, "Ludwig Von."
The prison chaplain, in a moment that now feels enormously central to the play, protests that while Brodsky's brainwashing will bring Alex freedom from incarceration, it will steal his free will. A scary Minister of the Interior counters that the prisons are overcrowded and violence needs to be stifled. The parallels between Burgess and some of the events of 2005 are not perfect, but Tantalo makes sure that we notice them anyway—both the dangers of a society willing to let itself lose cherished freedoms for the "common good" and the surreal, docile acceptance of violence and torture as givens in our (post-Abu Ghraib) world.
He also gives us a heck of a good show—an intense, chilling 75 minutes of claustrophobic drama. The play is staged in the round in a small, boxy theatre, and the intimacy is integral to the experience: our discomfort and, yes, concern for our safety as fight scenes come within inches of our seats is absolutely intentional. Godlight's Clockwork Orange is not interactive, it's active—we are not just observers, we're participants as the government officials and Alex and others deliberately address us at key moments in the play; and therefore a little bit culpable.
Maruti Evans's lighting design is spectacular, defining the stark, empty space as a variety of abstract but recognizable locales. Christian Couture's costumes are simple variants on an all-black color scheme with one authentically shocking exception. The music and sound, by Beethoven and Andrew Recinos, is stirring and visceral throughout. David Lefkowich's fight choreography meshes beautifully with Tantalo's tight direction, keeping us riveted as the tale unfolds. Randy Falcon gives an extraordinary performance as Alex, full of vigor and physicality and entirely suggestive of the tragic waste of a human life that Alex's story portends. Eleven hard-working actors portray the other characters in the tale with energy and commitment.
When I left the theatre my first impression was that the story didn't wear as well as I thought it would—a second viewing in three years seemed a little bit redundant. I don't think that anymore: A Clockwork Orange is a play worth coming back to, because it's loaded with stuff that, though hard to take, is absolutely necessary for us to see and hear. If you saw one of Godlight's earlier mountings, don't let that keep you from checking this new one out—you will likely be surprised, as I was, at the new meanings and ideas that Tantalo and his collaborators have found in this piece. And if you're new to this company or this play, well, you've got a terrific, involving theatre experience to look forward to.