Like Clockwork

There was a time, not so long ago, when "edgy" theater produced by young thespians in tiny black boxes was a hit-or-miss proposition, often involving tunics and more than a little angry posturing. Today, local companies keen on selling oddball stories are riding high, and Stray Cat Theatre is ahead of the pack with consistently interesting, well-produced plays. Its current production of Anthony Burgess' troubling A Clockwork Orange is no exception: a gutsy, punkish reading of this seldom-seen play, admirably directed by the company's artistic director, Ron May.

The stage version of Burgess' story about a thuggish British teen is closer to his futuristic novel than to Stanley Kubrick's 1971 film version starring Malcolm McDowell, although all are told in the eerily eccentric "outsider" language the author created for bad boy Alex and his cronies. In this oddly lilting, vaguely Shakespearean tongue, Alex recalls his roguish childhood spent swindling, beating and raping his neighbors. He's eventually caught and tossed into the slammer, where he submits to a controversial aversion therapy program, is "cured" and released. Act Two is essentially a morals tale with a twist, as Alex crosses the paths of nearly every person he's harmed in the past. He becomes a "martyr to the cause" who's displayed at public meetings, an object of ridicule with whom we can never entirely sympathize.

Quite a few blood capsules are burst, but all of the violence -- and there's a great deal of it early in Act One -- is staged as gracefully as a ballet, thanks to the talents of fight choreographer David Barker. In one long, frightening sequence, Alex and his gang deliver a brutal beating without ever touching their victim. The boys surround the unfortunate fellow, stomping and pounding a violent rhythm and then, parting, gently hand the man his hat, into which he drools a dark stream of blood. Later, our hero mimes stabbing an actor who's standing on the other side of the stage, and in a rumble sequence, two rival gangs repeatedly rush one another from across the stage, yet never once make contact. These and other more graphic scenes are so filled with hurried movement and thunderous noise, they're somehow more unsettling than a more realistic enactment of violence might be.

Justin DeRo's post-punk costumes for Alex and his pals are just right: a lot of black cotton, bicycle chains, and tee shirts sewn up with mesh, all of it just scruffy enough to be worn by hoods, but stylish enough to suggest punk couture. Ben Monrad and Kevin Vaughan-Brubaker have designed a score that calls on Beethoven, techno-pop, and everything in between.

Ron May is living proof that a good director can make an adequate cast play to the rafters. The supporting players are called on to play everything from fogies to children, and are never less than convincing, in good part because May keeps them moving, goosing them into one antic routine after another.

Then there's Jonothan Howard, who's letter-perfect as the malicious miscreant Alex. His performance is a nearly musical creation, a swaggering recital that's equal parts Iggy Pop and Joan Crawford in her middle-aged-moll period. Whether tethered to a chair and hollering for mercy during the rehab sequence or humping his way through a simulated sex sequence, he's never not a captivating, menacing presence. Howard is the centerpiece of a fierce, oddly graceful drama you won't want to miss.

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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela