Everyone has heard the phrase "a clockwork orange." But what does it mean? According to Anthony Burgess, who popularized the term as the title of his 1962 novella about good, evil and the power of choice, it alludes to something that looks juicy and enticing on the outside, but which inside has been reduced to rote. Like, for instance, and all too sadly, HotCity Theatre. The company's current stage adaptation of A Clockwork Orange is yet another painful reminder that what once was the city's most exciting theater company has devolved into a husk of its invigorating self.
Before it morphed into HotCity, the HotHouse Theatre Company showcased the most vital and sometimes dangerous acting in town. I still have vivid memories of Jason Cannon's egomaniacal Orson Welles pitted against Doug Shelton's scarecrow John Houseman in It's All True; the gorgeously attuned triumvirate of Carolyne Hood, Jared Sanz-Agero and Laurie McConnell in A Streetcar Named Desire; Terry Meddows' inspired cavorting in The Most Fabulous Story Ever Told, the galvanic Joel Lewis and the menacing Peter Mayer in the American premiere of the Irish drama In a Little World of Our Own. Even when HotHouse mounted a play for which I had little use, like Omnium Gatherum, you could feel a sense of occasion. On that particular opening night, there wasn't an empty seat in the house; theatergoing became an event.
Then came the merger with City Players, which also was doing good work. (Pinter's The Homecoming was especially memorable.) Though the renamed HotCity Theatre debuted auspiciously in 2004 with The Exonerated, on opening night the auditorium was empty. What in the abstract had seemed like a step forward did not work from the outset. HotCity has since offered occasional fun productions (like Adult Entertainment) and occasional marvelous performances (like Rory Lipede in Valhalla and Lavonne Byers in Polish Joke). But there's also been a sense of slow bloodletting that brings us to A Clockwork Orange.
A review is not the proper forum to discuss why and how this company has gone so far astray, but it is the proper venue to discuss what's being presented on the stage. A Clockwork Orange is subpar in every respect. For starters, the adaptation by Brad Baker seems to be little more than a straight-out recycling of Burgess' plot about Alex, the lascivious teenager whose lust for violence is sapped out of him by the State. Any sense of satire is missed completely. Instead we're treated to an evening of unrelieved nastiness. The staging relies on video images to comment about brutality. In addition to an overhead screen, nine television monitors are built into the rear wall. But the screens are small, and as far from the audience as possible, thus diminishing their impact.
With the occasional exception of Jim Anthony (who was a better actor when he called himself James), the performances range from inconsequential to inadequate. There's a sense here that our best actors have abandoned HotCity; this is the "B" team. As our maniacally genial narrator Alex, Jared Nell is either in over his head or else he received no help from director Jason Cannon. Did actor and director not discuss, for instance, the fact that Burgess' unique jargon requires special handling? Nell talks so fast that a viewer can be excused for giving up on trying to follow what he's saying. The actor is actually at his best when he's retching and screaming. Those sounds we can understand.
Doubtless HotCity had a good reason for choosing this play. But whatever that reason was, it is not conveyed. Watching this production recalled a comment from playwright Lillian Hellman: "People who think they are telling you something, something large, and then can't, make me nervous." Instead of something large, we get amateur night at the ArtLoft. This, from what used to be the most stimulating theater company in St. Louis. So sad.