Greasy Joan & Company

at the Loop Theater

A Clockwork Orange

Defiant Theatre

at the Storefront Theater

Two current shows urge viewers to consider the challenges a free society faces in a time of color-coded terror alerts and street-corner surveillance cameras–and propagandists’ attempts to protect homeland security by equating dissent with treason and nuance with weakness. Both companies have turned to works from the past. Greasy Joan & Company is presenting a starkly beautiful modern-dress rendition of Sophocles’ Antigone, written circa 442 BC. And Defiant Theatre is mounting an uneven but often effective A Clockwork Orange, Anthony Burgess’s 1987 stage version of his 1962 novel.

Written millennia apart, these two scripts explore the same big conflicts: liberty versus obedience, individual rights versus the good of the state, political law versus divine law. Both are deeply grounded in religious faith: Antigone portrays the ruin of a leader who places his own ideology above the will of the gods while A Clockwork Orange hinges on the Catholic belief in free will. As one character, a prison chaplain, says: “Does God want goodness or the choice of goodness?” In both plays young rebels alienated from the sick societies that spawned them flout the rule of law. Antigone commits a single act of defiance against the king, also her uncle, while Alex in A Clockwork Orange embarks on nightly sprees of robbery, rape, and murder. For her crime, Antigone is sentenced to death; for his, Alex is brainwashed to curb his violent impulses, which leaves him vulnerable to attack.

The threat of violence, social chaos, and death is as real and fundamental in these stories as it is to us today. Alex is a predator who attacks the defenseless; the law Antigone breaks was imposed by a ruler trying to restore peace after a bloody civil war. It’s precisely because these dangers are real that the plays’ warnings remain urgent: in a democratic society, we must take care to preserve the human rights that supersede any political ideology.

Greasy Joan’s Antigone begins in the theater lobby, where video monitors broadcast a CNN-style news show on the drama’s backstory: After learning that he unknowingly married his mother, Jocasta, Theban king Oedipus has died in exile; his sons, Polyneices and Eteocles, have killed each other after a power-sharing agreement failed. The new king, Jocasta’s brother Creon, has declared Polyneices a traitor whose body should be left unburied. Speaking from a podium adorned with the slogan “Making Thebes Safe,” Creon here is the quintessential politician, simultaneously provoking and placating paranoia as he stresses that obedience to the law–his law, that is–is key to a stable society.

When the play proper begins, Antigone declares her plan to give Polyneices, her brother, a proper burial; family duty and the will of God outweigh Creon’s policy. Driven by ego and obstinate ideology, and enraged that a woman has done what no man would dare, Creon responds to Antigone’s act by ordering that she be buried alive. His hubris leads to several tragic deaths and the downfall of his dynasty; a chorus of townspeople reminds us that “the ringing words of proud men are children’s frightened whispers in the night.”

Working from a 1986 adaptation by Brendan Kennelly for Dublin’s Abbey Theatre, director Julieanne Ehre leads a first-rate ensemble of performers and designers in creating a haunting, intense 90 minutes of theater. Scenic designer Natsu Onoda provides a cavelike setting–high, bare walls streaked with black and gray–that conveys the emptiness of the life that Antigone, spawn of incest and heir to a cursed legacy, renounces so willingly. Andrew Hansen’s sound design suggests the echoes of a cave, and he’s set several choral passages to a solemnly pulsing techno-soul score, chanted anthems that contemporize the poetry but always respect its archaic power.

Ehre has given her well-chosen eight-person cast a detailed gestural vocabulary that intensifies the characters’ emotions yet feels spontaneous. Nicole Burgund’s soft-spoken Antigone, dressed in blood red by costumer Ana Kuzmanic, is delicate yet determined, as fascinating in her single-mindedness as Hamlet is in his indecision. Ed Dzialo’s business-suited bureaucrat Creon is stubborn yet sympathetic; he keeps his hands outstretched, palms up and wrists bent back, as if trying to push away an intrusive world. Derek Gaspar is superb as grief-stricken Haemon, Antigone’s betrothed. Most powerful is the black-clad three-woman chorus (recalling the Greek Fates and the soothsaying sisters of Macbeth). Representing a society spiritually destroyed by its leaders, graceful singer-dancers Monet Butler, Nancy Moricette, and Mary Ann de la Cruz convey the sense of solemn ritual essential to the work.

Like George Orwell’s 1984 and William Burroughs’s Naked Lunch, A Clockwork Orange uses a fictional future world to satirize the present. Burgess’s target in 1962 was the cold war welfare state, with its rush to technological advancement and lack of spiritual connection. Defiant director Christopher William Johnson rightly relocates the story from Britain to the United States–Robert Moore’s set is a circular clocklike area decorated in an American-flag motif–and incorporates modern devices. Cell phones, key cards, digital cameras, and virtual-reality glasses all figure in the world of “Little Alex,” the teen predator who narrates the play story-theater-style in Burgess’s invented lingo, Nadsat, a jumble of Elizabethan English and pidgin Russian. But despite the gizmos, this society isn’t advanced enough to channel or quell young men’s propensity for violence: Alex and his pack of “droogs” prowl the city streets like wild animals, marking their turf by bashing whoever gets in their way.

Stage violence has been Defiant’s calling card since its modernized Hamlet in 1993, just after the group relocated here from the University of Illinois downstate. Now, in what the company says is its last production, Johnson and fight choreographer David Blixt exploit Alex’s “ultraviolence” to the hilt. A budget-busting 24-person ensemble uses fists and feet, canes and chains, straight razors and baseball bats to simulate beatings, stompings, a beheading, a castration, and several rapes–vaginal, oral, and anal. (In one scene a cop sodomizes a suspect with a metal baton.) The carnage is accompanied by a sound track ranging from Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony and Orff’s Carmina Burana to Bernard Herrmann’s score for Psycho.

The suicides and slaughter that drive Antigone are never shown onstage; the Greeks knew that fake swordplay could never match the horror of the real thing. Defiant’s A Clockwork Orange proves the point. The fight scenes go on too long, inflating the 165-minute running time by a good 20 minutes, and there are too many of them–especially in the first act, which makes the second seem talky. Worse, the elaborately choreographed fights are neither shocking nor titillating; instead they merely confirm the actors’ stage-combat skills.

Still, this scruffy, sprawling production communicates Burgess’s satire and philosophical speculation. It’s far truer to the material than Steppenwolf’s 1994 Chicago debut of the play, an effects-laden theme park of a show. Boyishly pretty Jarrett Sleeper, clad by costumer Amy Frangquist in leather pants and black trench coat, plays Alex with an adolescent’s alternately husky and squeaky voice; Alex’s screams while he undergoes chemical-aversion therapy are far scarier than any of the show’s physical violence. But the most chilling moment comes when Alex strolls leisurely along the street while dozens of law-abiding citizens rush past him, chattering inanely into their cell phones. Here Defiant conveys the cultural alienation that has shaped Alex into the conscienceless creature he is.

A Clockwork Orange and Antigone offer no solutions to the problems they portray. After his deprogramming and reprogramming treatments, Alex merely tires of his violent lifestyle. “All it was was that I was young,” he concludes, leaving the stage free for the next generation of teen terrorists. And the chorus in Antigone, surveying the personal and public devastation wrought by Creon’s ideology, can only state a simple, eloquent truth: “There is a future, you must cope with that. There is a present, we must all cope with that.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Michael Brosilow.