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Every adaptation of Anthony Burgess’ 50-year-old novella A Clockwork Orange lives in the long shadow of Stanley Kubrick’s still-shocking 1971 film, as does Burgess’ text. Dashed off in three weeks, little examined or discussed in the years before Kubrick made a movie out of it, and finally repudiated as “too didactic to be artistic” by the author himself, the book so haunted Burgess that he adapted it for the stage a generation after it was published, reinserting the more hopeful ending that both his American publisher and Kubrick omitted. A 1990 Royal Shakespeare Company production featured music by Bono and The Edge, 20 years before stunt performers started falling out of their harnesses along to their score for Broadway’s Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark.
Scena’s Theatre’s version uses Burgess’ music (mostly pieces of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9, with lyrics) for a few numbers that neither detract from nor significantly facilitate the telling of Burgess’ tale—which remains powerful in any form, even if he didn’t think much of it. Anchored by an energetic, persuasive performance from Chris Stinson as Alex—the raping, murdering, charismatic 14-year-old sociopath subjected to experimental “Ludovico” therapy to instill in him a physical aversion to violence or lust—the show explores Burgesses’ existential riddle about whether good behavior matters if it isn’t the product of free will with reasonable alacrity, and without making you feel like you’re going to throw up right along with Alex. (While I admire the force and artistry of Kubrick’s movie, I’ve never had the stomach to sit through a complete second viewing.)
Michael C. Stepowany’s set embeds a flowing white orb suggestive of an eyeball at the back of the stage; mercifully, we’re spared the sight of Stinson’s eyelids being clipped open while he’s strapped in for his re-education. There’s a lot of double- and triple-casting despite a company of 17 actors: Jim Jorgensen is chilling and memorable as both the doctor in charge of the Ludovico process and the husband of one of Alex’s victims. Michael Miyazaki stands out as a prison chaplain who protests the Ludovico process will remove its subjects’ consciences. But there’s something slightly sinister in his performance, too; taken with the fecklessness of Alex’s parents and the prevarication of the Minister of the Interior (Buck O’Leary), it’s enough to suggest that the cruelty the kids of this nightmare future embody is not innate but learned. Finally, Chris Aldritch, Mitchell Grant, and Armand Sindoni are well-cast as Alex’s “droogs.” Like Stinson, they have a menacing but still graceful physicality, and their adept handling of Nadsat—the slang dialect Burgess invented for his horrifying youths in revolt—keeps their intentions as immediate as a swift kick to the Gulliver. Or as Kubrick would have it, a giant ceramic phallus to the skull.