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Torn Space mounts bold screen-to-stage experiment with ‘A Clockwork Orange’

Torn Space Theater has laid out an almost impossible challenge for itself with its production of “A Clockwork Orange,” now running in the company’s space in the Adam Mickiewicz Dramatic Circle and Library.

For several years now, the company has been engaged in a quixotic effort to marshal the emotional and psychic power of cinema in the service of innovative adaptations and original dramas for the stage.

It is a noble endeavor partially born from a desire to retool theater for a generation that increasingly views it as antiquated and unable to hit the brain with as much force and power as a great film. The company has had marked successes and plenty of failures in its quest to activate new parts of theatergoers’ brains, and the singularity of its endeavor alone makes it worth paying attention to.

David Oliver’s production of “A Clockwork Orange,” inspired as much by Anthony Burgess’ controversial novel about a teenage criminal as by Stanley Kubrick’s loaded 1971 film adaptation, is a fascinating effort that ultimately falls short.

As the lights go up, we meet our preternaturally violent protagonist Alex (Alan Trinca), who introduces us to his “droogs,” or posse, before they start on an evening of “ultra-violence.” As in the film, that violence comes across with cringe-inducing realism thanks to expert fight choreography by Adriano Gatto. Alex’s violent spree eventually lands him in jail, where he attempts to act as a model prisoner and is chosen for an inhuman rehabilitation program meant to “cure” him of his propensity for violence.

Burgess intentionally gave his most moralistic words to a preacher, played in this production by Matt Witten, to defuse any potential critique about the novel seeming to proselytize. But proselytize it does. It is a testament to Kubrick’s talent that a key deficiency in Burgess’ book – its clunky literalism about the state’s attempt to crush the free will of its citizens – blossoms into a stylistic virtue in the film.

Oliver’s challenge in transposing the work of Burgess and Kubrick into a key that registers with theater audiences is immense. For one thing, the tools at the director’s disposal to achieve the perfect emotional timbre, as Kubrick’s film so often does, are far fewer. There are no wide-angle lenses to distort key parts of the frame, no jump cuts to manipulate the viewer’s attention and no close-ups on our faithful narrator’s devious eyes or furrowed brow.

What Oliver does have to work with is an excellent metal set designed by Kristina Siegel, made almost entirely out of welded metal and able to be reconfigured to represent the streets of London or the interior of a medical treatment facility or upscale home. He has Patty Rihn’s smart lighting design, music and sound design by Todd Lesmeister and Joseph Stocker and lovely murky video by Brian Milbrand and Matt Biehl. And he also has Alan Trinca, whose fine performance as Alex captures and amplifies the volatile mix of menace and mischief that is the hallmark of adolescent nihilists.

These are blunt but effective tools, which work in concert with a smart staging (save an ill-advised final musical number set to Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy”) that does its best to emphasize the tension between violence and freedom that is central to the work. But unlike the film, the production contains almost no naturalistic dialogue, opting instead for a stylized approach that by its very consistency lessens the emotional impact it might otherwise have. The show starts on a heightened note and stays there, rarely descending back to earth long enough to provide those shocking moments of irreality so central to the experience of the film.

In spots, Oliver borrows tricks from Kubrick. Whereas the film showed Alex’s group of droogs walking in slow-motion along the Thames (which Quentin Tarantino later borrowed for “Reservoir Dogs”), this production has the droogs engaged in a tightly choreographed slow-motion brawl.

The Torn Space show also reincorporates Burgess’ rosy final chapter, which the original American printing of the book lacked and Kubrick wisely left out of his film, lending the story a sort of cheery finale at odds with the rest of its content and message.

The production leaves out one of the more important lines in the film, perhaps in an attempt not to seem too self-obsessed. “It’s funny,” Alex says, “how the colors of the real world only seem really real when you viddy them on the screen.”

This production probably won’t succeed in altering that sentiment, at least as it regards “A Clockwork Orange,” for most theatergoers brought up on the movies. Even so, the stylistic accomplishments of the show are so many and so innovative that it merits a closer look.

Theater Review

“A Clockwork Orange”

3 stars

Presented by Torn Space Theater through Oct. 13 in the Adam Mickiewicz Dramatic Circle, 612 Fillmore Ave. Call 812-5733 or visit Tickets are $15-$25.