- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 3, 2001

''A Clockwork Orange" begins with an attempted rape and gets more disturbing from there. The dystopian tale of mayhem, violence, mood-altering drugs and classical music was born as a novella, incarnated on the silver screen by Stanley Kubrick and mounted as a play in 1990.

A good number of people know about the movie and many are aware of the work on which it is based. The play, however, is not well-known, a situation the Studio Theatre would like to remedy. I went into the theater thinking that "Clockwork" would not work onstage, but I was mistaken. All the virtues of the original work have transmuted themselves to the stage — and so, too, have the faults.

Alex (Scot McKenzie), the leader of a small band of thugs he calls his "droogs," is the sympathetic and repulsive protagonist in this exploration of free will. ("Droogs" is a Russian word for "friends.") He comes from a nominally "nice" home, but Alex and the droogs spend their evenings beating people for fun and theft. To revive their spirits, they haunt the Korova Milkbar, a nightclub that distributes stimulant-laced milk to its patrons.

Although he and his friends operate in a moral vacuum, Alex has a primitive sense of order. "We're all droogs, but someone's got to be in charge," he explains before thrashing the other droogs to put them in their place.

When a subsequent burglary goes awry, Alex subdues an old woman (Rusty Clauss) by smashing a television over her head and killing her. He is then incarcerated and attempts to ingratiate himself with the Anglican chaplain (Steve Lebens).

When he inadvertently kills another inmate in a brawl, however, Alex asks to be transferred into a "special program" for hardened criminals to secure his release. There he undergoes aversion therapy, to cure him of his disordered desires for violence and sex.

"Clockwork" is being staged by the Studio Theatre Secondstage in a small experimental space with perhaps 120 seats surrounding the action. Usually, being that close to the action improves a play centered on dialogue and ideas, but in this case, it detracts from it mightily. Stage fights look real because the audience cannot see a fist miss an actor's face. But when the action takes place a few feet in front of you, it just looks farcical. We know that a man is not getting his crotch stomped, nor is anyone getting punched in the chest (although the staging gives some immediacy to the scene in which a female stripper tries to tempt Alex after his therapy).

The actors also overplay many of the secondary characters, which only adds to the farcical air. All of the medical professionals who administer Alex's treatment are almost uniformly loud and grating. This surely was not author Anthony Burgess' intent — he wanted us to be shocked by the evils we see and to decide whether they were worth enduring because of the value of free will.

The production also gives Mr. Burgess' themes "a bit of the old ultraviolence" in its treatment of Christianity. Mr. Burgess, although not a believer when he wrote "Clockwork," grounded his musings in Judeo-Christian ethics. That thread, the impetus for the whole work, was played down in the film; Mike Chamberlin's directing at Studio practically dismisses it. He chooses to make the play's Anglican minister a homosexual fop, thereby cutting the legs out from under the character who delivers the moral of the story: that God permits free will even though it makes evil possible because without it we cannot love anything truly.

"Clockwork" fans will appreciate that David McKeever replicated some of the score in this production, including, of course, Beethoven, or "Ludwig Van," as Alex calls him. The sets by Giorgios Tsappas are spare but effective, especially the Plexiglas walls of Alex's prison cell and treatment room. Costume designers Kathleen Geldard and Levonne Lindsay adroitly capture the fashions Mr. Burgess envisioned, which portray elegance and embody the play's spirit.

"['Clockwork'] is not, in my view, a very good novel," Mr. Burgess wrote in his 1990 memoirs. That may be overly modest, but like so many other cultural artifacts from the era in which this was published, it is looking a little less futuristic. The droogs' speech is peppered with "nadsat," a mishmash of Russian and English words, because the Cold War seemed as if it would last forever. It also was written at a time when "youth culture" threatened to overwhelm Western society, chiefly because the baby boom produced so many youths.

That danger has abated, though some might argue that youth culture is practically the only culture nowadays.

"Clockwork" remains prescient in one way, though. In our time, "nonconforming" children are given mind-altering medications because that is more convenient for parents and the state.

"A Clockwork Orange" questions whether we can eradicate the free will of anyone, even an incorrigible criminal, and still call ourselves human. That's a question still worth pondering.

{*}{*}WHAT: "A Clockwork Orange" (contains graphic violence and several long stretches of sexual nudity)WHERE: Studio Theatre Secondstage (pick up tickets at 14th and P streets NW)WHEN: 8:30 Fridays through Sundays, through March 25TICKETS: $15PHONE: 202/332-3300

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