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A Clockwork Orange — Luna Theater

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Photo Credit: Aaron J. Oster

Masks, wigs, and purposely outlandish characterizations become more window dressing than concept in the Luna Theater production of Anthony Burgess’s “A Clockwork Orange,” an auspicious inaugural work for Luna’s new off-South Street digs. Thanks to Gregory Scott Campbell’s direction of the play’s most critical and controversial passages, and the bravura physically expressive performance of Alan Holmes as Alex, the head droog who becomes an experiment in penal reform, the juicier points of Burgess’s provocative story need no props or campy folderol to register with resounding force and clarity, sparking both a strong reaction to events as they occur on stage and a heady debate on the methods used to “cure” Alex of the engrained sociopathic tendencies he seems so to enjoy.

      As Campbell’s production concentrates more and more on Alex’s treatments and their results, it acquires an urgency that makes you, the audience, a judge in deciding whether or not the corrective measures Alex endures are a benefit or a punishment that goes too far to fit any crime. Campbell, with the help of Holmes and Katie Gould as a Minister of the Interior whose purview includes prisons, aids Burgess in presenting his tantalizing premises and their questionable consequences. It is from the second half of the 90-minute performance, played without intermission, that the Luna staging derives its strength  and ultimately makes “A Clockwork Orange” as sharp and timely as it ever was.

      The first half introduces Alex’s world and his place in it, but it is not as disciplined and not as poignant. The violence depicted and inflicted while Alex is at large as juvenile delinquent and the head of a gang that responds to all situations with switch blades and right fists to the gut is stylized and cartoonish. You get a definite sense of the mayhem Alex and his malchicks (Nadsat, a language Burgess devised from English and Russian as droog lingo) cause and their joy in doing it, but the fight scenes are so frequent and similar, they make no mark. They establish a story and let you know you are in a specialized environment, a dystopian future or Burgess’s impression of early ’60s Britain (pre-Beatles and pre-Kennedy assassination, and therefore ahead of the youth revolution that would evolve later in the decade). They don’t create any solid intensity and involve you much. Even a scene that involves a writer carrying a manuscript entitled “A Clockwork Orange,” doesn’t change the fast, manic pace of the production or give insight. Nor does a scene in which Alex meets his probation officer whose attendance at a classical music concert introduces and emphasizes Alex’s admiration for Beethoven, a key element in Burgess’s story.

      Early scenes are scattershot. Holmes and his malchicks look menacing in Millie Hiibel’s thuggish costumes. They rattle off Burgess’s Nadsat with aplomb that conveys the meaning of the language whether or not one has referred to the handy glossary in the Luna program. They demonstrate their penchant for theft, assault, violence, and vying for pecking order within the gang. But it is all matter-of-fact, all exposition of a sort. You may not enjoy seeing the violence, or the relish with which it’s meted, but it lacks impact because it seems acted instead of real. Stylization gets in the way. Even when someone lies wounded on the ground, allegedly sliced by a knife and dripping with krovvy (blood), the fighting has no effect. It’s one more example of what we’ve seen again and again so far. It cannot be taken seriously enough to merit care, worry, or disgust.

      You can’t blame Campbell too much for walking a fine line here. Burgess writes satirically. Campbell is working with a comedy that has earnest overtones. Where to opt for edgy style and where to suspend the breeziness to admit some gravity is a dilemma. Especially when all of the characters are wearing masks that not only preclude facial expression but that put them on some fantastic plane and away from the realm of reality. Masks are Campbell’s decision — or so I believe; I can’t find any evidence that Burgess asks for or insists on them — but as Holmes proves, in a dramatic moment when Alex is unmasked, the actors’ uncovered faces, perhaps made up to convey some consistent droog look, may have had a stronger effect than the masks allow. They summon thoughts of commedia dell’arte that are out of kilter with Burgess’s style of comedy.

     Everything improves and attains the right dramatic intensity when Alex goes too far during a burglary and ends up getting caught, arrested, and sent to jail. From that point forward, the Luna mounting, interesting so far but not gripping, takes hold and never lets go.

      Alex, who at the time of his arrest, says he’s age 14, doesn’t see much difference between jail and the London streets he terrorizes. He has guys to dominate, guys to fight, guys to join him in violent behavior, and guys he, in his state of absolute amorality, regards as worth killing for the sport and efficiency of it. Alex’s prison is overcrowded. By ridding it of an inmate or two, he’s helping to relieve a bad situation.

     Alex, whether we sympathize with him as the focal character of Burgess’s work or not — and at this point we may root for him to triumph over other yard toughs who haven’t established any identity — is a lifer we would all agree should be kept behind prison bars.

     Here’s where Burgess begins to throw his curves, and Campbell begins to knock them out of the park.

     Alex is the perfect candidate for an experiment called the Ludovico Treatment. Based on Pavlovian theory, it trains humans to have an aversion to particular behaviors by using graphic pictures and film clips that cause nausea and render even the most hair-trigger droog unable to participate in violent acts or anything that is against the law.

      The therapy works so well, Alex is deemed safe to send back to society. Some comic and ironic scenes ensue, all of which Campbell, now more focused in his direction and dealing with Alex and a few individuals rather than a gang, makes the most of. Most important, though, is if Alex has the ability to thrive in the world in which he’s thrust.

      The doctor who administers the Ludovico Treatment underscores his slides of beheadings, castrations, beatings, and other extreme acts with Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, specifically the “Ode to Joy,” Alex’s favorite classical work. In erasing Alex’s violent tendencies, the doctor has also erased his love and appreciation of music. Hearing Beethoven nauseates him as much as punching, stabbing, and shooting does. From society’s viewpoint, Burgess posits, that may not be an unwelcome trade-off. Alex, for all of the pain he caused and lives he’s ruined, has to sacrifice high culture in order to be free and unthreatening to others. Which is worse, vomiting to “Fur Elise” or robbing and raping women?

      Sickening at hearing Beethoven may be the least of Alex’s problems. He is released to the same dystopian environment he terrorized. Effectively prevented from committing a violent act, allegedly a good thing, he is also unable to defend himself from attack. He is prey to anyone who shares the attitude and amorality he had before becoming the justice system’s poster boy. That includes being vulnerable to people he bullied, the people he injured, and the people whose lives he altered forever, sometimes because he killed a loved one.

      Alex is suddenly unfit to live in the world he delighted in making dangerous.

      Burgess acknowledges the attraction of eliminating an individual’s choice to choose evil, but he teasingly asks what you, as a member of society would prefer. Or he at least makes you think about what you might advocate if the Ludovico Treatment was not a device of Burgess’s literary and political imagination but a real possibility. How far should correctional officials be allowed to toy with an individual in the name of law, order, and a more peaceable kingdom?

       Campbell and company don’t duck these questions or the issues to which discussion of them leads. By his staging and by Alan Holmes’s vivid, moving portrayal of Alex in the throes of Ludovico-type reform, he thrusts Burgess’s ideas and condrundra in our laps. Holmes’s performance compels us to respond and react. We have to consider the issues at hand, the byproduct of a Ludovico Treatment, and if psychology or penology leaves a middle ground. Luna’s “Clockwork Orange” becomes taut, effective, and as provocative as Burgess’s 1962 novel or Stanley Kubrick’s underrated 1971 movie (which received no significant Oscar nominations and consequently earned no major awards although I would have given it Best Picture over “The French Connection,” that year’s winner, or “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” another strong contender). I left the theater thinking Burgess was well-served and that the issues he raises continue to warrant discussion.

     I also left admiring the work of the Luna troupe, Alan Holmes chief among them.

     Holmes is one of the actors who can transcend his mask, even with its Cyrano nose and the shock of blond hair that clashes with his reddish blond locks. Mask off, he conveys a wide range of emotion and even Alex’s inner thoughts.

      From a sheer acting standpoint, the agony Holmes portrays as Alex first becomes susceptible to the nausea the prison doctor inculcates, and the fits he enacts as Alex is more and more affected by the Ludovico Treatment, are sensational. Holmes is a definite contender for the Best Actor citation I intend to confer among other awards at the end of the calendar year.

      Alex’s scene with his parents, his impulse to be violent before nausea impedes, his reaction to his malchicks once he is relieved of some of the more scalding effects of the Ludovico therapy, and his nervousness around someone who realizes Alex caused the death of his wife, are all masterfully played. Holmes is a remarkable young actor who brings Alex to vivid life and makes him likeable, an anti-hero, even when he is at his most despicable. He also handles Nadsat as if it is his native tongue, recites Burgess’s occasional Shakespearean flights as if he is a veteran classical actor, and sings Beethoven’s tunes on key and as written, which gives Holmes a leg up on most of his castmates (who should study the music and its pitch a tad more carefully).

      Also effective are Katie Gould, who is an oily advocate of her prison reform scheme and can match Kathleen Sebelius as a government softsoaper; Erin Carr as a  bottle-toting prison chaplain who presents Burgess’s moral argument before we see Ludovico’s full effect on Alex; Kevin Rodden, who is appropriately droll as a lodger who claims Alex’s place in his parents’ home; and Jeremy Gable who plays the writer whose work explains the term, ” a clockwork orange,” by which Burgess means an person who has his or her individuality, the fruit of his or her being, sucked out until he or she is nothing more than an automaton.

     I cited Hiibel’s costumes for the droogs, but she also does a great job on the prison uniforms, the Nancy Reaganish suit for the Minister of the Interior, and British hausfrau garb.

      As muddy and one-note as Luna’s “A Clockwork Orange” might seem at the start, it is worth every bit of patience to bear with it, and enjoy Holmes’s work, until Campbell arrives at the show’s meat and serves it up rare and tasty with all the trimmings.

      “A Clockwork Orange” runs through Saturday, November 9, at the Luna Theater, 8th and Kater Streets (620 S. 8th Street, a half block south of South Street), in Philadelphia. Showtimes are 7 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and 6 p.m. Sunday. Tickets are $25 with discounts for people age 30 and younger. They can be ordered by calling 866-811-4111 or going online to www.ovationtix.com.

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