A Clockwork Orange

by Robert Nesti
EDGE National Arts & Entertainment Editor
Thursday Jul 22, 2004
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Fans of “A Clockwork Orange,” Anthony Burgess’s novel, will no doubt understand what Alex, its thuggish, alpha-male protagonist, means when he calls something a “real horrorshow.” Like “cool” or “fabulous,” it is a term used to praise someone and something, and is a frequently used example of Nadsat, the street jargon that Burgess created for his 1963 satiric novel about delinquency and radical social reform. Why the novel has been turned into a stage play is baffling to say the least; but is something to contemplate while sitting through Company One’s hapless adaptation that brings to mind a more conventional use of the term: It’s a real horror show alright.

Understanding the language these thugs speak, one so complex that it requires a glossary of terms in the novel, is the first of many red flags raised by this ambitious, if misconceived production. As Alex and his fellow gang members (called Droogs) act out their frustrations in a bar where hallucinogens are dispensed in milk, their conversation is largely intelligible, noisy banter. If this was a movie you were watching on television, you’d likely turn on the captioning to follow what’s going on. Or simply pop in a DVD of its legendary 1971 film version to see it rendered in a more artistically successful fashion.

That Stanley Kubrick film made an overnight sensation of actor Malcolm MacDowell as the nasty juvenile delinquent who becomes the victim of social engineering run amok. Because of its stylized violence it was hugely controversial at the time, and was banned from Britain for more than two decades when officials held the film responsible for a spike in youth crime a year into its release there. But the filmmaker who immediately comes to mind while watching this version is not Kubrick, but Ed Wood, whose amateurish efforts have made him the patron saint of Grade Z-movie lovers everywhere. Not that there’s anything to love here: From the poorly conceived design elements to its hopelessly amateurish acting, this “A Clockwork Orange” makes one wish that ban was extended to stage performances as well.

Kubrick solved the linguistic challenges of the novel through ample use of voiceover that focused the audience’s attention on the use of Nadsat in a more coherent manner than is seen here. In fact it was the use of that tricky linguistic jargon and the film’s futuristic look that made it so exhilarating to audiences three decades ago. Add to this the innovative use of music derived from themes by Alex’s idol, Ludwig Von Beethoven (or Ludwig Von as he calls him) that casts an ironic layer on the story’s dehumanizing narrative, one that has Alex chosen to be a guinea pig in a mind-control experiment that will de-criminalize him.

Those familiar with the novel and film will likely be able to follow Alex’s story, though snatches of dialogue may be lost in the inept staging (by Mark VanDerZeee and Shawn LaCount) that oddly has actors speak with their backs to the audience or be drowned out by the annoyingly loud musical accompaniment (supplied by the local group the Dresden Dolls) which draws attention to itself with numbing self-consciousness. One particularly silly moment has the Ode to Joy reduced to a silly and dated exercise in avant-garde cabaret, replete with white-masked mimes. (What were they thinking anyway?) Making matters worse is that the pacing is solemnly slow, as if underscoring the importance of its themes about freedom and personal responsibility without illuminating them in a dramatic way.

Burgess’s 1987 adaptation, which was reworked for a production by the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1990, is no great shakes: a labored morality tale that reduces complex ethical issues to a kind-of tabloid simplicity that robs them of any subtlety. No doubt some will draw parallels to our current administration – exchange terrorists for Droogs and you’ll get the idea; but the production is eclipsed by the more telling (and far more enjoyable) remake of “The Manchurian Candidate” in theaters this week. Though another paranoiac vision of government sponsored scientific mind control experiments out-of-control, it nonetheless is far better acted and far more entertaining than this production at a half the cost of a ticket.

Burgess set his novel in a futuristic London where the crime rate has soared to a frightening proportions; Company One sets it in no particular geographic location, instead relies upon David LaCount’s unattractive, and not entirely functional industrialized sets to suggest its urban, contemporary locales. His work is dominated by a small stage that moves forward at times for no apparent reason save to reveal a frightened stage hand beneath it. The costumes by Sara Liebmann and Stacy Scibelli are darker and less stylized than those seen in the film. The Droogs trade those distinctive white suits (and codpieces) of the film for a grittier Downtown look that recalls the Mad Max movies. What’s worse are the costumes of some of supporting characters, who include a tough-talking Anglican priest who looks completely inappropriate in a blowsy gown that looks like a cast-off from Eddie Izzard’s closet; and an outlandish lab outfit for a scientist (finished with what appeared to be duck-tape) that resembles something out of a cheesy sci-fi film directed by, say, Ed Wood.

The actors playing the Droogs behave as if they really have hallucinogens (or at least pep pills) in their milk. They shout with abandon, but lack the training to persuasively articulate Burgess’s invented language. As Alex, Raymond Ramirez is teenage-appropriate, but never goes beyond a one-note delivery, and becomes tiresome quickly; but so does this flat-footed production that laboriously dramatizes a story best left within the covers of a book or a DVD case.

At the Boston Center for the Arts, 539 Tremont Street, Boston, through August 14. Schedule is Thursday and Friday at 8 p.m.; Saturday at 7 and 10 p.m. and Sunday at 7 p.m. on Sunday. Tix $20; $15 for students; pay what you can on Sunday July 25. For more information call 617-426-2787, or visit Company One’s website at

Robert Nesti can be reached at


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