'A Clockwork Orange’ at Tampa’s Jobsite Theater still provokes questions about redemption and free will

Tough to do, in an increasingly violent world.

click to enlarge Donovan Whitney during a technical rehearsal of 'A Clockwork Orange 'at Jobsite Theater in Tampa, Florida. - PHOTO BY NED AVERILL-SNELL
Photo by Ned Averill-Snell
Donovan Whitney during a technical rehearsal of 'A Clockwork Orange 'at Jobsite Theater in Tampa, Florida.
Much as “Hamilton” recasts history, Jobsite’s “A Clockwork Orange” is told by a young, energetic cast of mostly 20-somethings flipping the fable’s gender and age politics. Burgess was not happy with the popular 1971 Kubrick film, so 16 years later he penned his own stage adaptation with songs. The idea being a theater of alienation à la Bertolt Brecht in the manner of “Die Dreigroschenoper (The Threepenny Opera).” While pop music might seem the obvious choice for his subversive tale, Burgess considered it “twanging nonsense” and made his protagonist instead a devotee of Beethoven.

A projection on Brian Smallheer’s white tile asylum set tells Tampa theatergoers they’ve been transported to the “capital city” in the “near future” of what turns out to be a dismal dystopian England. It’s a darkly comic modern tale of a totalitarian society where violent youths abound. Alex (the charismatic Donovan Whitney) has a passion for classical music and is a member of a vicious, anarchic teen gang of droogs (friends) indulging in orgies fueled by narcotic-spiked milk and gleefully committing random acts of utterly sickening brutality against defenseless citizens. After being caught and imprisoned, Alex opts to undergo state-sponsored psychological “aversion therapy” rehabilitation to reduce his sentence. Burgess’s savage 1962 satire was prophetic, anticipating the hedonistic ‘60s yielding to ‘70s disillusionment.
For this intermission-less 85-minute production, Director Dan Granke notes, that the “characters are broad, mostly nameless representations of the state or various ideological state apparatus (the church, the scientific establishment, the elderly, etc.)” This is workable in theory, but underwhelming in practice. The performance style in the intimate Shimberg Playhouse is so broad that it lacks real menace. Despite Brecht’s urging against audience empathy, playgoers inevitably identify with the action. If everything is dramatic, nothing is important.

Jobsite’s design team, however, really delivers. Jeremy Douglass provides evocative sound, costumer Katrina Stevenson outfits the ensemble’s many roles distinctly, especially the droogs in colorful leather and circus war paint. The MVP, however, is Jo Averill-Snell who has been given a blank canvas of a set, which she paints with every imaginable color and texture to suit the locations and dystopian mood swings.
click to enlarge Photo from a technical rehearsal of 'A Clockwork Orange 'at Jobsite Theater in Tampa, Florida. - PHOTO BY NED AVERILL-SNELL
Photo by Ned Averill-Snell
Photo from a technical rehearsal of 'A Clockwork Orange 'at Jobsite Theater in Tampa, Florida.
Maybe I’m just a cranky boomer, but all I can think about is how inadequate Burgess’s lyrics are when set to the soaring melodies of Beethoven’s 9th. Perhaps it’s the recent death of Stephen Sondheim, but I just kept being reminded of how pedestrian the lyrics are even with their music hall style. And, in a week where a ex-cop can by found not guilty by fear of popcorn—which is a reminder of our out of control unsolvable gun culture, the threat of juvenile delinquents wielding 1960’s baseballs bats, knives, chains and razors just doesn’t provide the proper nature of threat to an audience in 2022. Plus, the early fights with weapons are cartoonish and lack danger. The later fisticuffs are far more real and visceral. But all this pales when the “equalizer” is now found in the purses of suburban moms or the glove box of a truck that cuts you off in traffic.

The larger issue is how can a play ever shock us with hand combat implements that may have been fearful in 1962, but are timid, even ho hum, in a culture half a century later when Congress lacks the courage even to ban weapons of war after Sandy Hook with the massacre of 27 kindergartners? And now, when nearly a decade has passed since that awful day in 2012, the daily news is filled with shocking images of war in Ukraine and Putin threatens a nuclear option? Burgess’ droogs have zero impact.

The ethical dilemma for us to ponder is redemption and free will. Does being forced to be good deprive us of humanity? How can we truly be good, unless we have the free choice to be (or actively reject) evil. While Alex and his gang of teenage thugs go through ugly motions, there’s never a real sense of fear, danger, or revulsion for modern crowds. Our culture is so desensitized I’m not even sure how to create an irredeemable monster at the outset, in order for the government ordered aversion therapy to seem justified. And then, of course, the cure has to be as frightening as the disease. Unless the action is genuinely horrific, the point doesn’t land with the dramatic force that the original material demands. Nothing about this very well-intentioned production makes the audience squirm. There are some unpleasant descriptions, but nothing visceral to shock us.
click to enlarge Photo from a technical rehearsal of 'A Clockwork Orange 'at Jobsite Theater in Tampa, Florida. - PHOTO BY NED AVERILL-SNELL
Photo by Ned Averill-Snell
Photo from a technical rehearsal of 'A Clockwork Orange 'at Jobsite Theater in Tampa, Florida.
“Clockwork” marks Jobsite’s return to the Shimberg Playhouse after being slapped around by the pandemic, so maybe audiences are a bit reluctant, but the material demands in-your-face brutality. This production is a philosophical allegory instead of a punch in the gut. One problem, of course, is that language has almost lost its power to shock. Just after WWII, the word “damn” was enough to induce gasps from an audience. With very few exceptions, it’s hard even to conjure a word that shocks us now. Also, Burgess’s invented language, Nadsat (Russian for ‘teen’) gives his novel raucous and unfamiliar prose in print based on Cockney rhyming slang in addition to the Russian influence. Unfortunately, playgoers don’t have access to the meticulous glossary in the 50th anniversary edition, so it poses a frustrating problem for audiences reliant on hearing instead of print.

Kudos, though, to the ensemble which portrays dozens of roles: William Alejandro Barba, Jada Canty, Kiara Flowers, Amanda Heisey, Haley Janeda, Daniel Lennox, Jr., Brianna McVaugh, Omen Thomas Sade, and Jared Sellick.

Regardless of my Brechtian failure, producer David Jenkin’s hope “to spark conversations” about free will, mind control and the nature of violence is as inevitable as the sunrise.