Review: ‘A Clockwork Orange’

Steppenwolf's attempt to stage Anthony Burgess' cult classic novel is an unfortunate example of an abundance of theatrical spectacle masking serious performance problems.

Steppenwolf’s attempt to stage Anthony Burgess’ cult classic novel is an unfortunate example of an abundance of theatrical spectacle masking serious performance problems.

Director Terry Kinney has tapped a talented design team to create a bizarre, threatening landscape in which to play out Burgess’ chilling tale of the violent thug Alex (K. Todd Freeman), whose strange journey through life becomes a commentary on good and evil and moral choice.

Kinney is no slouch at establishing an aura for “A Clockwork Orange.” A chamber orchestra plays sweetly in a small cubicle lit by a crystal chandelier and perched above a vast expanse of black dirt that becomes the forbidding arena in which most of the action takes place. Drummers hidden high in the fly space pound out menacing sounds that underscore the attacks on innocent victims perpetrated early on in the evening by Alex and his band of Droogs.

Women in bridal dresses swing out over the audience as they are raped. Menacing, half-clothed figures watch the action from dark corners or catwalks surrounding the stage, while huge set pieces are lowered silently onto the playing area from high above.

Certainly, there is atmosphere to spare in this “Clockwork Orange.” What is missing, incredibly enough for this company, are performances: Kinney seems to have done a bang-up job of getting the physical production in place and then walked away from the show.

Most lamentable of all is Freeman in the central and crucial role of Alex. Freeman mouths Burgess’ intricate combination of normal and made-up language with no apparent feeling for the words and no sense of character. What should be an unforgettably compelling portrayal holding the show together is a low-energy bore from beginning to end.

The rest of the large company of 29 performers also make little or no impression over the course of the evening. They speak in a wide range of dialects, some British, some American. Scenes come and go with no sense of any one character bearing more dramatic weight than another.

In a production so lacking at its core, it is difficult to work up much enthusiasm for Burgess’ script or the message he is trying to convey.

What little enjoyment the evening does offer comes from Robert Brill’s provocative set, Kevin Rigdon’s always bold and constantly changing palette of lights and Laura Cunningham’s colorfully punk outfits. They are the true stars of this misguided production.

A Clockwork Orange

Steppenwolf Theater; 500 seats; $32 top


A Steppenwolf Theater Company presentation of a play in two acts by Anthony Burgess. Directed by Terry Kinney.


Sets, Robert Brill; lights, Kevin Rigdon; costumes, Laura Cunningham; sound, Michael Bodeen, Rob Milburn; musical concept and direction, Willy Schwarz; fight direction, Robin H. McFarquhar; video and media design, John Boesche; production stage manager, Alden Vasquez. Artistic director, Randall Arney. Opened and reviewed Sept. 24, 1994. Running time: 2 HOURS, 20 MIN.


Alex - K. Todd Freeman
Mrs. F. Alexander - Martha Lavey
F. Alexander - Robert Breuler
Alex's Mother - Martha Lavey
Alex's Father - Cedric Young
Head Warder - Skip Sudduth
With: Paul Adelstein, Carolyn Baeumler, William R. Bartlett, Christopher Bauer, Jef Bek, Daniel J. Bryant, Dana Eskelson, Patrick Fitzgerald, Edgar Gabriel, Steve Gibons, Pat Healy, Rich Hutchman, Bill Kronenberg, Adrianne Krstansky, Nick Offerman, Robert Radkoff-Ek, Margaret Rattenbury, Daniel Ruben, Willy Schwarz, Kim Leigh Smith, Jeff Still, Todd Tesen, Benjamin Werling, Sara Wollan.
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