A different approach to 'A Clockwork Orange'

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Entertainment,Theater

October seems the perfect time of year for Anthony Burgess' theatrical adaptation of his dark and didactic "A Clockwork Orange." With all of the eerie and ominous goings-on and spine-tingling creepy-crawlies of the season, such a menacing little tale of a "dystopian near future" should fit right in with the strange chills of autumn and its howling, anthropomorphic winds. Yet Scena Theatre's new production falls flat.

Billed as a play with music, Burgess adapted his 1962 novella into something closer to his original vision, as a sort of belated response to Stanley Kubrick's film adaptation in 1971.

The result is a callow effort to reinvent the shocking saga of a young man who is "cured" of his proclivity for violence, stripped of his own free will by a government-funded program that experiments in conditioning prison inmates until they are liberated from moral choice. Here, our anti-hero is Alex, a psychopathic teen whose affection for "Nadsat" (Burgess' fictional Slavic-English slang) is matched only by his perverse reverence for all things Beethoven. When Alex undergoes the prescribed "Ludovico" technique and is rendered physically incapable of self-defense, he is served up a heaping dose of retribution as his gruesome past comes back to haunt him.

Ironically, for a story that connects its key plot points to its protagonist's love of music, Burgess' songs are intrusive and altogether insipid. Scena's production relies heavily upon cinematic sound design, and the musical numbers, which are all prerecorded and piped in through overhead speakers, offer little more than a cheeky break in action throughout the evening.

Onstage
'A Clockwork Orange'
Where: Scena Theatre, at the H Street Playhouse, 1365 H St. NE
When: Through Nov. 18
Info: $25 to $35; 703-683-2824; scenatheater.org

But the artless way we're served up such pale song and dance is only one problem. Robert McNamara's direction slovenly establishes Chris Stinson's Alex as the intrepid leader of his fellow "droogs," and that's partly because for much of the first act, the actors run around breathless and spent, indulging in the kind of staged violence that induces whimpers and moans instead of genuine cringe-worthy aversion. And few actors offer relief from McNamara's heavy-handed direction, among them Michael Miyazaki and Jim Jorgensen.

Perhaps the most telling aspect of McNamara's production is that its technical elements outshine the cast. His ardent use of atmospherics, including fog and evocative lighting from Marianne Meadows, accompany Michael C. Stepowany's gritty, "all-seeing eye" set, which is cleverly flanked by plastic wrap on all sides of the stage.

Scena manages to take a brilliant book, and its subsequently beloved film adaptation, and turn it into parody. Here McNamara presents a flatly-staged concoction that barely titillates, much less offends.

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