When real magic happens on a stage, as it does in Quad C Theatre's current production of A Clockwork Orange, an audience may undergo something akin to alchemy. We sit down as our normal, numbed-out selves, a little work-weary, or logy from the bowl of teriyaki grabbed before curtain time. Certainly we are jaded by too many mediocre plays of late and wary of college actors attempting anything so enormous and complicated as the "world premiere" of a new adaptation of the 1962 Anthony Burgess novella that spawned Stanley Kubrick's scary-beautiful 1971 film.
Then, halfway through Act 1, we realize a wonderful transformation is taking place. The strange language, electric energy and startling images onstage have shaken us awake. No one in the house dares breathe or cough for fear of breaking the spell. We are collectively mesmerized. To use the "nadsat" slang Burgess concocted for his angry teen-age anarchists, our gullivers go bezoomny to pony what we viddy.
This is one freaking great piece of theater.
At the risk of overselling it, I consider what they're doing out in Plano right now to be as good as anything I've seen on professional stages in New York, London or certainly Dallas in the past few years. (And if you can't get out to Quad C to see it before October 13, this production reopens October 31 for another two-week run at the University of Texas at Dallas.)
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Produced on an operatic scale, A Clockwork Orange includes a cast of more than 30 actors and a barrage of seamless, cinematic scene changes indicating 38 different locations (achieved through video and slide projections on three gigantic screens). The acting, directing and design elements all are first-rate.
One of the performances--Brian J. Smith in the lead as Alex, gang leader of the "droogs"--is nothing short of extraordinary. His command of this difficult role is impressive and memorable. Smith, who grew up in Allen and just turned 21, has the incendiary stage presence of a young John Malkovich, but with the sweet good looks of a teen movie idol. This young actor's going places, wait and see.
Supporting Smith is a remarkably gifted, ethnically diverse ensemble of student actors from UTD and Collin County Community College. Their acting is tight and focused and their vocal work is particularly good, saddled as they are with Burgess' neo-linguistic blend of rapid-fire Cockney English, "gypsy talk" and Russian slang. It takes a few scenes to begin to decipher their baffling patois: gulliver for head, for example, and bezoomny for crazy, plus dozens of other made-up nouns and verbs. A quick study of the glossary provided in the program helps, but the actors themselves do a fine job making everything clear in context.
They also do some damn good stage fighting, and there's a lot of it. As choreographed by stage combat expert Robin Armstrong, the punches look so hard and so authentic, audience members wince every time a droog pokes a bratchny in the litso.
The look of this production is big-time slick without ever seeming contrived or overwrought. Scenic designer Craig "Yo" Erickson sends starkly elegant, all-white set elements sliding and gliding across the stage in front of a blank cyclorama, which lighting designer Jeff Stover splashes with flame reds and icy blues. Robin Armstrong also designed the costumes, dressing the young British toughs in Edwardian-gone-Mod threads fashion-forward enough to have stepped right off the runway at Hedi Slimane. All the details, even the neon glowsticks hanging off the police uniforms, feel just right.
This successful marriage of high concept and strong execution reflects the work of director Brad Baker, who also did the adapting of Burgess' novella into stage play form (with permission of the author's estate and publisher). Baker, artistic director at Quad C Theatre, has wrestled the plot down to a manageable number of characters and scenes (the show runs just two hours) without losing any of what the author intended. This play even goes a chapter beyond the Kubrick film, which Burgess reportedly never liked, to bring it all full circle.
A Clockwork Orange, set in "the near future" in an unnamed bleak urban landscape, is the story of 15-year-old Alex and his nasty gang of droogs (nadsat slang for "friends"). On Alex's orders, they rampage through dank city streets at night, robbing, raping and eventually murdering any lewdies they deem too banal to live. They celebrate their crimes at the local moloko (milk) bar and arrogantly taunt the local constabulary they call rozzes.
After one bloody night, Alex is arrested and sent to state prison for a two-year stretch. In scenes reminiscent of 1984, he submits to "Ludovico therapy," institutional torture disguised as behavior modification. Afterward, Alex becomes physically ill at the thought of acting on his anti-social impulses. Declared cured--"as decent a lad as you would meet on a May morning," says the doctor--Alex is released, only to find that his "pee and em" have rented out his room to a quiet young lodger they love more than their own son.
Cast adrift, his droogs now grown up and employed as rozzes, Alex revisits the scenes of his old crimes, realizing for the first time the pain he rained down on his innocent victims. A political dissident tries to recruit him as "a martyr for the cause of liberty," but Alex's gulliver has been washed clean of subversive thoughts. He's become the very cipher he used to despise, and, in a final emotional soliloquy, he considers suicide, pressing a switchblade against his own neck.
Under Baker's direction and with a leading actor the caliber of young Brian J. Smith performing Alex, a role as big and complex as Hamlet, this Clockwork Orange brings a clarity to Burgess' words that even the masterful Kubrick failed to achieve. The themes and subtext ask big, dangerous, relevant questions about freedom and individuality that make for spirited post-show arguments and leave one's gulliver buzzing for days.
Perhaps Alex's violent outbursts can be perceived as the desperate protests of one young man against the shallow conventions of a boring social order over which he has little control. Deprived of choice by the government's living "euthanasia," he loses his urge to act out, which makes him safe to return to society. But is Alex really a better man for bowing to conformity? Violence may be evil, says this play, but perhaps it's a better risk than state-controlled monotony.
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