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Missing Passions


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Steppenwolf Theatre Company

Steppenwolf Theatre's A Clockwork Orange runs like--well, like clockwork. In this American-premiere production of Anthony Burgess's 1987 play, set pieces fly in and out with crack precision; a rainstorm falls right on cue; and carefully coached actors roll with their crisply choreographed punches while heavily amplified percussion perfectly underlines the stylized "ultraviolence." Under Terry Kinney's generously budgeted direction, an array of smoothly functioning technical effects brings the 21st-century horrorshow of Burgess's play to life with all the reliability--and believability--of a future-world theme park.

But if you're looking for moral urgency, or even just exciting theater, you'd better look elsewhere. A major disappointment considering its heavy hype in the daily press--and laughable in comparison with Stanley Kubrick's vivid and shocking 1971 film version--Steppenwolf's depiction of urban terror has all the impact of a staged shoot-out at a tourists' ghost town; little kids might be taken in, but no one else will be. Kinney's serious-minded program note states, "There will be those who say that we are contributing to an out-of-control bonfire of violence in our society." But the only bonfire evident here is the vanity of Kinney and company in thinking their show comes close to being provocative.

Closely following the 1962 novel, Burgess's script details the adventures of a 15-year-old punk named Alex who leads his "droogs" (comrades) in nightly escapades of aimless vandalism, robbery, assault, and rape. The prototype of the alienated adolescent, Alex is no dispossessed ghetto kid but the product of a respectable middle-class upbringing: out-of-touch parents, an irrelevant and ineffectual educational system, an impotent social-welfare structure, and a political establishment whose liberal and reactionary wings are equally well suited to screwing up the people they're supposed to serve. Imprisoned after he's killed an old woman who had the temerity to fight back, Alex is chosen to test a new scientific method of rehabilitation--an aversion-therapy treatment in which he's injected with drugs that produce pain and nausea while he watches films of violence. Turned into "a perfect Christian," the newly submissive Alex is disinclined not only to perpetrate crime but to protect himself from it, leaving him vulnerable to attacks by his former victims. Elevated to celebrity status, Alex becomes a pawn in the struggle between adherents of social control and proponents of free will--call them the ultimate prochoice activists--whose Catholic-inspired position (representing Burgess's own) is that goodness must be chosen, not conditioned.

The novel is best known for its once-shocking depiction of juvenile crime and for its invention of a cult language, Nadsat, which freely intermingles pidgin Russian, Elizabethan English, techno-slang, and the ubiquitous teen term "like." But A Clockwork Orange is also a diatribe against behavioral conditioning, inspired by Burgess's cold war anxiety that the British welfare state was turning into a twin of the Soviet system; to him, the actions of England's "teddy boys," America's "juvenile delinquents," and Russia's "stilyagi" were symptoms of alienation from a dehumanizing global technocracy that offered no spiritually affirming channel for young men's intelligence and vitality. Alex (whose name is a Latin-derived pun meaning "without law") is "natural man," whose crimes are inevitable expressions of evolutionarily essential instincts society has failed to harness. Like another teenage warrior, Alexander the Great, "little Alex" is a conqueror--but there are no worlds left to conquer. Rather than wrangle over ways to subjugate Alex and his ilk, Burgess argues, society should try to give their lives purpose.

It's an issue that burns more hotly now than ever, as politicians bicker over crime bills and ammunition bans while avoiding serious confrontation with the causes of crime. And Steppenwolf might have made Burgess's tale a potent metaphor for the world its audience lives in--if it hadn't been sidetracked by an infatuation with technical effects. "Should we, as theater artists, censor what we show so as to avoid mirroring what is already so evident around us?" asks Kinney in his program note. Of course not; but Kinney's Clockwork Orange celebrates only theater craftsmanship, not artistry. Pursuing the mechanics of production and ignoring the emotional essence of performance, it defies traditional censorship, with its gratuitous nudity and scenes simulating sex and slaughter; but these passages carry neither moral force nor visceral sensation.

In interviews Kinney and his star, K. Todd Freeman, have argued that free will, not violence, is Burgess's theme. True enough; but that theme resonates only if our embrace of it is challenged. We must fear and hate Alex before we can love him; otherwise his is the story of just one more punk, gussied up with pedantic posturing about original sin and the fall of man. But in the hands of Kinney and combat choreographer Robin H. McFarquhar, the battles Alex and his droogs wage on defenseless seniors and helpless girls are never threatening. They're so well timed for visual impact as to be almost polite; and the thundering drum music played by Willy Schwarz and Jef Bek, which matches nearly every move, further undermines any semblance of spontaneity, which might have created a sense of horror. For contrast, consider the nail-biting impact that Prop Theatre's Never Come Morning achieves in its rape and fight scenes, with just a fraction of Steppenwolf's financial and physical resources.

Perhaps with stronger acting there'd be more juice in this clockwork Orange; certainly my own disappointment with the show stems in large part from the performance of Freeman, whose subtle underplaying of the title character in The Song of Jacob Zulu was so moving. As little Alex (or not-so-little Alex, in one display of full frontal nudity), Freeman again conveys the inner intensity that informed his gentle Jacob; but he fails to speak Alex's flamboyant lingo as if it were comfortably his own, instead declaiming the Nadsat narration story-theater style, in a monotonous and colorless drone. Only at the climax--in which Alex, having recovered from his brainwashing and reentered a life of crime, finally outgrows his adolescent alienation ("All it was was that I was young. . . . Alex like groweth up, oh yes")--does Freeman bring any life to the stage, delivering Burgess's archly naive conclusion with an anger that seems to stem more from the actor than the character. "All it was was youth?" he seems to be asking. "I spent two and a half hours on the stage for this?!" The audience might be inclined to agree.

Surrounding Freeman is a mostly anonymous ensemble who seem swallowed up by designer Robert Brill's sprawling urban-wasteland set, which undermines the show's intended grittiness with its obvious expensiveness--a perennial problem at Steppenwolf. (The soil that covers the stage is probably worth a few months' rent at the housing projects a few blocks from the theater.) Looking like leftovers from an Adam and the Ants costume party in their Laura Cunningham-designed duds, Alex and his droogs hang out at a druggy milk bar in which a dead cow hangs from the ceiling, her udders connected to a fountain of cream; it all looks like a Halloween theme party at the old Medusa's, where white-bread suburbanites used to go to slum through their futuristic fantasies. Mechanical in every sense of the word, this Clockwork Orange represents more tellingly than intended Burgess's concerns about technology swallowing up the human spirit.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Michael Brosilow.

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