Wednesday, October 16, 2019

A (Brilliant!) Clockwork Orange at Bag&Baggage

Photo by Casey Campbell

By Tina Arth

Prior to last night, my only experience with A Clockwork Orange was almost 50 years ago, when I saw (and hated) the movie. I have since learned that Stanley Kubrick’s 1971 film, like pre-1986 American editions of Anthony Burgess’ 1962 novella, omitted the final chapter. The result was that an already darkly dystopian tale was deprived of a hint of redemption that puts the whole story in completely different framework.

Luckily for me (and for theater-goers around the globe) the author never really liked the way his story had been handled on film or in the U.S. print version. In 1987 Burgess released A Clockwork Orange: A Play with Music (subsequently updated for an off-Broadway production in 2017), and it is this show, with the final chapter restored, that undergirds director Cassie Greer’s stunning Bag&Baggage production at the Vault in Hillsboro. I can best describe my reaction as West Side Story meets One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, with just a hint of The Wizard of Oz.

The play retains the novella’s essential elements, but the staging and the addition of music lend a slightly lighthearted air that allows Burgess’ essential themes (principally, that free will is essential to a meaningful human experience) to shine through the story’s overt violence. A Clockwork Orange tells the tale of Alex, an angry and violent teen in a totalitarian, futuristic society. Courtesy of his unbridled aggression, he takes leadership of a strange little gang (Georgie, Dim, and Pete) who express themselves with a curious lingo called “Nadsat” that seems to be a hybrid of Russian and Cockney slang. Out on a crime spree after a night of drugged drinking at the local milk bar, Alex and his droogs (friends) fight with a rival gang, rob an author and rape his wife; later they break into the home of an elderly woman who dies during the attack. The other gang members escape, but Alex is caught and given a 14-year sentence. A few years into the sentence, Alex is subjected to an experimental behavioral modification treatment that uses aversion therapy to render him incapable of violence. The treatment is initially successful, and he is released from prison, but as Act II progresses things go (predictably) wrong.

The cast is all male, and with the exception of Aaron Cooper Swor, who plays Alex, each cast member plays multiple parts, including the roles of women. Jim Rick-White’s lighting design often assaults our senses with its harsh use of contrast, while costuming and sets are minimalist. The effect is a hard-edged but surreal presentation that features, but never glorifies, the darkness inherent in the script. The play is filled with scenes of fighting and raw violence, but choreographer Mandana Khoshnevisan has created a hybrid of gymnastics and ballet that softens the impact and lends some humor to even the harshest moments. The end result is a play where we never forget that we are watching an allegory, rather than simulated reality – and this challenges the audience to concentrate on the author’s (and director’s) thematic intent.

Swor is superb in a bizarrely challenging role where he must lead the audience through a series of reactions from utter disgust and alienation through brief flashes of empathy, setting us up to finally accept a surprising degree of transformation as he recovers the free will he lost during treatment. Watch also for Ty Hendrix’s athleticism and his skill at adapting to the needs of his many roles, and for Andrew Beck’s supremely arrogant, almost inhuman Dr. Brodsky. While you’re at it, watch them all – there are neither small roles nor weak links in this 9-person cast.

Audience members are invited to read a synopsis of the show at intermission to help them comprehend the dialogue, so peppered with Nadsat that it might seem unintelligible at times. I started to look at a clipboard, but immediately put it down when I realized that despite the odd language barrier the actors had told the story so clearly that I needed to no interpreter. If you have not seen or read any previous incarnations of A Clockwork Orange, go see the Bag&Baggage production simply for the merit of the presentation and message. Otherwise, forget everything you know about the book or film and go to see a brilliant take on a compelling tale.

Bag&Baggage’s A Clockwork Orange is playing at The Vault, 350 E. Main Street, Hillsboro, through October 27th, with 7:30 p.m. performances Thursday, Friday, and Saturday and 2:00 p.m. Sunday matinees.


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