Theater: An Ultra-Male, Female-Directed Clockwork Orange

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Pumped up, in A Clockwork Orange. Photo: Caitlin McNaney

How do we look at the Other who seems monstrous? Well, sometimes a story pins our eyes open and won’t let us blink. By now, the world knows the wily, vicious Alex DeLarge quite well, be it through Anthony Burgess’s novel or through the can’t-unsee-it performance of Malcolm McDowell in Stanley Kubrick’s 1971 film (which, at the time of its release, joined Midnight Cowboy as the second movie in history to receive a Best Picture nomination despite its X rating).

Alex, our “humble narrator,” speaks in a salty teenage patois of Russian and English slang called nadsat and spends his nights drinking drug-laced milk, hanging with his gang of “droogs,” and conducting a brutal reign of terror over the unspecified British dystopia where he resides. Now he struts into New World Stages in the overwhelmingly ripped person of Jonno Davies, who led the cast of this production’s recent London run (a friend of mine described his shoulders as “two baby heads”).

In fact, the majority of the all-male cast of this Clockwork Orange possess physiques that most human mortals (Malcolm McDowell among us) could never hope to compete with. The actors need the muscle: Alexandra Spencer-Jones — who worked on the adaptation as well as directing Clockwork — has envisioned an athletic, highly choreographed world for Alex and his droogs. The ultraviolence they perpetrate plays out in the first third of the production as a kind of extended ballet of brutality. We witness a fight with a rival gang, the attack of a couple on the street (including a rape), and a home invasion that results in the murder of an old woman, all through a series of rhythmic, physically impressive quasi-dances by this super-shredded ensemble.

The result — both of the choreography and of the ensemble themselves — is to render all this violence shockingly unshocking. First, because the movement is so crisp, so crafted, and so regular, it’s impossible to feel the horror of what we know is actually happening. Long sequences occur in time to throbbing, often contemporary music, with nearly every jab, punch, and kick executed as if to the tick of a metronome (and the heart-stopping power of Beethoven, which dominates many scenes in the film, is woefully underused here). The performers eviscerate, molest, and pummel each other, but out in the audience, our guts are quite safe from any real emotional punch. There’s something overly sleek, almost glib about the choreography: Should we really be allowed to witness a gang rape without ever feeling revolted or afraid?

The gloss and presentational tone turn the story’s danger intellectual rather than visceral, and something else about Clockwork’s world starts to feel not quite right as we gaze at a stage entirely full of handsome young men. Spencer-Jones is clearly attempting to blur the lines around Alex’s sexual violence. She’s changed the character he and his droogs rape from the wife of the author F. Alexander into his husband, and she inserts an icky moment of Alex molesting one of his own droogs into a scenic transition.

But simply playing up the homoeroticism doesn’t change what A Clockwork Orange’s ultraviolence is about. In Alex’s world, hypermaleness rules while femaleness and queerness are viciously subjugated. Even in its dystopian extremes, such a world feels unsettlingly close enough to our own to merit exploring. Yet somehow, in a recent interview, Spencer-Jones admits, “Gender for me doesn’t mean that much in the piece.” She speculates that she’d be excited to do the play again in the future with an all-female cast. That might solve some Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion issues, but it wouldn’t alter the fact that Clockwork takes place in a poisonous patriarchy (for comparison, see Riane Konc’s hilarious send-up of an in-the-works remake of Lord of the Flies: there’s no way these characters are women). We are — and need to be — talking about gender and violence right now, and it feels evasive, perhaps even a little irresponsible, to approach A Clockwork Orange while ducking that. The play owes a present-day audience a bit more than some rock-and-roll choreography and a fallback on “freedom of choice” as the issue at the heart of the piece. That’s an easy, broad concept to rally behind without a more nuanced consideration of a whole host of other problems, including what creates a boy like Alex in the first place.

It doesn’t help that, as Alex, Jonno Davies starts strong — he almost sings his opening lines, to thrilling and creepy effect — but then, as the character is put through the wringer, he becomes a bit unvarying. He throws his body around with utter abandon, but the character requires emotional acrobatics as well, and those muscles, at least, seem a little underdeveloped. The standout performances are by Sean Patrick Higgins as Dim — the dense, brutish enforcer among Alex’s droogs and the one who ends up betraying him — and Ashley Robinson as the Minister of the Interior (or “Inferior,” as Alex says). In entirely different ways, Robinson’s wheedling, bullying politician and Higgins’s thick-skulled raging bull are the characters that actually feel dangerous. And in a play that aims to bring us face-to-face with some of the ugliest, cruelest parts of ourselves, it was a welcome thing to finally feel a little bit afraid.

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While Spencer-Jones turns us to face the monster in Midtown, two other formidable women directors are tackling stories that also, in very different ways, push us to look at otherness — at the outsider who, blatantly or subtly, challenges the comfortable norms of our day-to-day existence. In the East Village, Anne Kauffman directs the New York premiere of Amy Herzog’s new play Mary Jane, about a single mother caring for a chronically ill child. And a short train ride away in Montclair, New Jersey, veteran Shakespearean Karin Coonrod opens up this year’s season of the Peak Performances series at Montclair State University with her production of The Merchant of Venice, originally created for and staged in the main square of Venice’s extant Jewish Ghetto.

Coonrod began envisioning her Merchant when she and her company, Compagnia de’ Colombari, were invited to participate in an ambitious project commemorating both the 500th anniversary of the Venice Ghetto’s origin and the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death. She found herself wondering whether a performance in the “reborn Ghetto of 2016” (now a “thriving hub of Jewish world culture”) might unlock something new and resonant in a play historically accused of anti-Semitism. Might it exorcise the ghost of problematic Shylocks past and reposition him as a foil, the outcast who exposes the hypocrisy and brutality of the dominant culture?

I wish I’d seen that show — the modern-day marketplace pageant on the centuries-old stones of the Venice Ghetto. Though this is a deeply intelligent and thoughtful Merchant, its transfer off the streets and into a theater brings out shortcomings that might have been elided in a full-throated outdoor performance.

Coonrod and her scenic and lighting designer Peter Ksander have approximated the campo (the piazza at the Venice Ghetto’s center) as best they can, leaving the wide stage of the Alexander Kasser entirely bare, with banks of secondary audience seating on the sides of the stage. In this vast, empty rectangle, actors are often forced to shout to each other, conducting everything from public business to intimate conversations as if they were, well, performing in a market square. I have no doubt this felt natural and even exhilarating in Venice, giving the production the atmosphere of a medieval mystery play cycle or an open-air commedia performance. (Indeed, Coonrod incorporates a good deal of that traditional form into the show through the playful performance of Francesca Sarah Toich, a seasoned commedia dell’arte performer, as the clown Lancilotto, who here opens the play with a poetic prologue in Italian.)

Bring the show inside, however, and this kind of distanced staging and its accompanying delivery of the language — which is highly proficient but largely declarative, lacking a sense of rich emotional inner life — reveal that Coonrod is primarily fascinated by Merchant as a civic play, not a story of individuals. The relationships between characters interest her less than the text’s big issues — justice, mercy, prejudice, hypocrisy, and even love (which here often has big, cynical quotation marks around it). You could be forgiven for coming away from this production without any real sense of what the titular merchant Antonio feels for his young gold-digging friend Bassanio, which, depending on how you read the play, could range from devoted camaraderie to tortured unrequited love. This feels like a missed opportunity, as deeper dives into the messy, idiosyncratic humanity of the characters would have made the play’s political commentary even more nuanced and incisive.

There is one actor on the stage who understands this, however, and who’s plumbing the emotional depths of his role to devastating effect. The heart of this Merchant is its investigation of Shylock (five actors of different genders, races, and backgrounds assume the role throughout the performance) and Coonrod is clearly building toward the trial scene, when Shylock demands his “pound of flesh” from the merchant Antonio. For this climactic sequence, Steven Skybell dons the yellow sash (a pointed signifier of Jewishness in this production) and becomes Shylock No. 5.

Suddenly, you can feel a resounding chasm open up below the play, and Skybell’s tormented, enraged, and ultimately destroyed Shylock forces us to stare into it. He brings the personal to the political, giving flesh and blood and fury to the idea that clearly drives Coonrod’s production. He shows us — and makes us feel — the outsider, a figure whose rage is as understandable as it is frightening, stripping the scales from our eyes and forcing us to question our histories, our judgments, ourselves. Through his riveting performance, and through Coonrod’s expertly unnerving use of both the full ensemble and the audience, the trial scene snaps this Merchant into terrifying and glorious focus. I hope they take it to the Lower East Side.

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While Merchant is most powerful when it zooms out, using a macro lens to show us society’s callousness and deceit, over on East 4th Street a new play by Amy Herzog is zooming all the way in. Though it’s meticulously crafted, the current offering at New York Theatre Workshop feels like such a recognizable slice of life that it’s difficult to get a sense of the urgent physical need at the heart of the piece, the thing that demands that it be a work of theater.

Mary Jane (which premiered at the Yale Repertory Theater last spring) shows us the wearying day-to-day of its title character, a single mother living with an incurably ill child. Mary Jane’s 2-year-old son Alex (never directly seen in the play) can’t speak, can’t hold his head up, and will spend his life hooked up to a variety of machines. His mother will spend hers caring for him — a thankless, selfless, financially crippling labor of love. During a prolonged hospital stay, when Mary Jane meets a Hasidic woman also coping with a chronically ill child, this stranger, Chaya (a tart, affecting performance by Susan Pourfar) puts her finger right on the indescribable struggle the two women share: “They always say to me: ‘It’s a blessing, what God has given you …’ I think, right, the kind of blessing you don’t know anything about and you don’t want to know anything about.”

The goal of Mary Jane seems to be to show us something of that bitter “blessing.” (I found myself thinking of the long-suffering Medvedenko in Chekhov’s The Seagull: “You know what somebody ought to write a play about? Schoolteachers! And what a hard life we lead.”) Mary Jane’s is a hard life — no amount of time spent in her company will be sufficient for us to know how truly hard it is. Moreover, her struggle is a painfully personal one for Amy Herzog, the playwright. She and her husband, the director Sam Gold, have two small children, one of whom is living with nemaline myopathy.

This is sensitive territory. It’s an intensely vulnerable act for Herzog to make a play out of something so close to her own experience. And it’s significant that Herzog and Kauffman are working with a cast of all women (and a predominantly female production team) to tell a story that on some level implicitly interrogates who does — and who’s expected to do — the bulk of the caring in our society.

Yet Mary Jane doesn’t move beyond Medvedenko’s modest proposal: It shows us a very hard life, and that’s pretty much all it does. We might — and do — feel sympathy, but we’d feel as much if a friend told us a similar story, or if we ran across it in a magazine. A play has the ability to do more, to create a world that, even if it very closely reflects our own, also refracts it somehow — either grandly or quietly expanding upon the real to inspire a revelation in its audience. In Laura Jellinek’s set, taps run with real water, refrigerators open with real lights inside, real couches fold out into sofa-beds, and though a mid-play transition moves us from Mary Jane’s apartment to the hospital, this scene change is somehow both very impressive and not particularly theatrical.

What keeps Mary Jane afloat is its ensemble. Liza Colón-Zayas covers great tenderness with a crisp, practical exterior as Sherry, Mary Jane’s longtime nurse (and perhaps her only real friend). Danaya Esperanza is immediately touching — articulate and still a little awkward — as Sherry’s college-aged niece Amelia, who has escaped her tiny town down south to come crash with her aunt in the Big City. Brenda Wehle is self-possessed and frankly excellent both as Ruthie, Mary Jane’s tough but sympathetic super, and as Tenkei, the Buddhist nun who offers her a listening ear at the hospital while Alex is in surgery (all the actors surrounding the title character play two parts).

Mary Jane’s encounter with Tenkei and her conversation with Pourfar’s terse, deeply felt Chaya are among the play’s most moving moments. In these meetings of strangers, delicately scored by Kauffman, something seems to open up in the production. Here Mary Jane, herself a kind of undercover outsider — isolated from the world and usually either avoided or pitied by it — experiences empathy in the unfamiliar, someone that draws her out of herself.

For who is Mary Jane? In the appealingly unaffected person of Carrie Coon (who’s received broad critical acclaim for her TV work in the The Leftovers and Fargo, as well as a Tony nomination for her performance in the 2012 revival of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?), she is garrulous, straightforward, and seemingly tireless — at least at first. She’s generous, forgiving, unfailingly positive, and proud (but not obnoxiously so) of how well she’s learned to navigate the bureaucratic minefield that comes with trying to care for a child like Alex. Underneath the optimistic persistence, she’s also bone-tired, on the edge of losing her job, and — though it’s only hinted at — full of as much anger as pain.

If only the play let her show a little bit more of what lies beneath. But though Mary Jane shudders once or twice, she never cracks. Her endurance is near saintly — a comparison that becomes blatant when Tenkei points out that certain saints used to have migraines, a condition from which Mary Jane also suffers.

If Mary Jane is a saint, then caring for Alex is her passion. Her passion play, however, never quite transcends. It shows us her hardship but not quite enough of her complexity, her darkness. It’s a portrait of someone who deserves recognition, but whose story has yet to take full advantage of the power of its art form to make us see.

A Clockwork Orange is at New World Stages through January 6.
The Merchant of Venice is at Montclair State University’s Alexander Kasser Theater through October 1.
Mary Jane is at New York Theatre Workshop through October 15.

Theater: An Ultra-Male, Female-Directed Clockwork Orange