With their unsettling and provocative mounting of Burgess' own stage version, director Christopher King and the Mind's Eye Theater company prove themselves a daring local troupe willing to be disturbing. The production is a ballsy ballet orchestrated for those who think violence has lost its punch.
King directs his cast of 28 with a rare and outrageously willful eye. Limited only by his modest budget, he pulls off large and fiery ambitions. The play begins with the entire cast in a production number set to Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit" -- but Tori Amos' torchy version, in which the entertain us refrain is more seductive than demanding.
Lost in their own sick voyeurism, Alex (the sinewy and scarily perfect Ian Miller) and his droogs (Burgess-speak for homies) whip up a maelstrom. Sticking to their motto -- "Destruction is our ode to joy" -- they bludgeon a homeless man to a pulp and then gang-rape a woman while her husband looks on. Alex, fifth in line, glibly asks the victim, "Still with us?"
He gets caught by the police and institutionalized with a team of government researchers hoping to turn Alex's thirst for violence in on itself. Through a series of aversion-therapy techniques that eventually cause him to wretch when he witnesses brutality, the state makes a lamb out of a vicious lion. His conversion is used by a politician (Darren Sextro) to suck up voters, and social order is restored. Or is it? Aren't those Alex's former droogs now wearing police gear?
The production is jam-packed with theatrics that contribute to Burgess' vision of a world gone mad. Bits of Beethoven are scattered throughout the show alongside samples of Nine Inch Nails. But the troupe also performs songs composed by Burgess; he wanted to write a musical -- a West Side Story for the strong of stomach. One of these songs, "Discipline," plays over an anal rape while Alex is incarcerated; it's like "Gee, Officer Krupke" crossed with a sadomasochistic porn film.
Cast members all wear bar codes on their clothing or skin; there are too many actors to mention individual achievements, other than to say that they're all in synch with King's intent. The design side of the show is equally accomplished, including Justin Zimmerman's visceral fight choreography, Tamara Kingston's dutiful dialect coaching, and Jeff Mace and Julie Allen's set design. The latter includes computer guts and silver ventilation tubes welded together in gleaming piles, and a cherry-red sofa scarred with duct tape. Their work implies that nothing has been spared a good lashing.
King is as skillful with one person onstage as he is with the full court, though there are places where a bigger budget would have helped. Scenes of Alex's scientific immersion in violent images, for example, could have used videos or slides of quickly edited mayhem. Why spare us when Alex has been so unsparing?
Mind's Eye has been hit-or-miss in its relatively short lifespan, but the company brashly takes its place among the local heavyweights with this show -- one that's as eerily topical as it is artistically euphoric.
This weekend, Barbara Houston coordinates a Members Project Code production of a new play by local writer Catherine Browder, called Down by the River. It premieres this Friday and continues its 8 p.m. performances Saturday as well as Friday, April 25, and Saturday, April 26, at the Westport Coffee House, 4010 Pennsylvania.
"[The show] has been especially needed in Kansas City," Houston says. "For the past few years, fewer acting jobs have been available for local Equity actors, since more out-of-town performers are being brought in to play roles that used to be cast locally."
All of the Equity theaters in town are guilty of doing that once in a while, though lately none more so than the Missouri Repertory Theatre. Houston worked there regularly under the two artistic directors who preceded Peter Altman, but she hints that she's not banking on a repeat engagement anytime soon.
Along with fellow Equity member Stuart Rider, Houston stars in Browder's six-character play set in Southern Missouri in the 1920s, the 1930s and the 1970s -- sometimes simultaneously. Browder says the play grew out of a ten-minute draft with characters that were initially inspiring but didn't make the longer version. Browder isn't from Southern Missouri, she says. "[But] my husband is, and I've been there enough to know it's a place with a lot of local color.
"The river is the seventh character," Browder adds. "It's called the Finley River in the play but is based on a smaller version of the James River, which people should know. Rivers are rich with metaphor."