BWW Interview: Jonno Davies, Sean Patrick Higgins and Misha Osherovich on A CLOCKWORK ORANGE's Haunting Themes

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There is a great something nasty brewing in the world today. We can speak of politics, society, violence, morals, division and race all we like. What remains true is that this life is considerably more complex than just right or wrong.

BWW Interview: Jonno Davies, Sean Patrick Higgins and Misha Osherovich on A CLOCKWORK ORANGE's Haunting Themes

Or is it? Picture, if you will, a predator. A monster with an unapologetic history of deplorable behavior that has long gone overlooked because of his good looks, puckish charm and skill on the proscenium. If a man can deliver a solid "Singin' in the Rain" (or "Beyond the Sea"), then his atrocities are relegated to something just North of adorable, no? We see where I'm going with this, right?

As I pored over these questions and reflected on a piece of literature I have revered since early childhood, I was struck by just what a chaotic animal the human psyche is.

We see and hear about horrific events on a daily basis. Society is crumbling, mankind has lost its center and it's sad to report that a hashtag likely won't do much to change that. We watch the news, we read the headlines, we feel and we hurt and we mourn. We point fingers, we de-friend, we bitch, we feign surprise, and we weep. It's human.

How truly interesting then to be faced with an anti-hero, a villain... a person or scenario that we understand is rotten to the core, but for whom we still hold a quiet soft spot. No matter how awful the crime, there's just something about the bad boy, right?

Despite what you may have been told, I am not in fact a licensed sociologist or psychiatrist or well-adjusted human. I have little to offer but personal thought and speculation. So, in a rare move, I will get right to the interview. Eventually.

Let me just establish that I've been drawn to A CLOCKWORK ORANGE since seeing the movie as a small child (in the 80's, kids weren't so sheltered). This is a film in which abhorrent scenes of rape, torture and assault are presented tongue-in-cheek, and it takes little more than some well-timed musical cues and a top-notch leading performance by Malcolm McDowell to somehow make it go down way too easily. Reading the book a few years later, one finds deeper themes of society, family and linguistics coming into play.

This is material so ripe for debate, so provocative and so important, it was inevitable that somebody would finally adapt it to the stage properly (a task that has been attempted poorly several times before). In my opinion, this feat has now been accomplished brilliantly by the Protean team at work presenting A CLOCKWORK ORANGE at Off-Broadway's New World Stages. The all-male cast brings a raw, cutting approach to the material that replaces language with physicality, argot with sweat, monologue with movement.

We spoke with leading man Jonno Davies, who has starred in the production across the globe, and fellow Nadsat-fluent bad boys Sean Patrick Higgins and Misha Osherovich.

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How did you first get involved in this project?

Jonno Davies: I joined the show back in 2014, for a short tour of Norway. Never did I think I'd be here now!

Sean Patrick Higgins: I was busy working on re-adapting Ken Ludwig's Three Musketeers when, fortunately, Stewart/Whitley called me in for an audition. After a couple whirlwind weeks of full immersion in the Clockwork source material and simultaneous tech/previews at Pennsylvania Shakes, I got the offer.

Misha Osherovich: I auditioned in New York, but truth be told the project had been on my radar for a while. There had been buzz about a stage version of A Clockwork Orange coming to the states for a while - I was totally fascinated by the idea. I couldn't wait to have a shot at auditioning for it.

What was your previous relationship to the source material? Had you seen the movie or read the book?

JD: It was a title that I'd heard of, mainly due its controversy, but I hadn't read the book or seen the film. I remember reading the script for the audition and getting exceptionally confused by the Nadsat.

SPH: Virtually none. I had come across the movie briefly much much younger, but had little appetite for it. Once I got the audition, I spent a few nights devouring as much as I could.

MO: I had heard of the movie and the pop-culture surrounding it, but I only watched the entire film start-to-finish just before my audition. I had read the book when I was younger - I always felt a strong connection to the novel because of the Nadsat language Burgess writes for the droogs - it's primarily modified Russian text; I'm first generation Russian-American.

Tell me a little about your character. How do you relate to him, and what is his backstory? What do you feel led him to the path in which we find him, and where do you see him ending up?

JD: Wow, strong question. He's the type of 15-year-old boy who will educate himself on Shakespeare, Benji Britt and Da Vinci, because he realises his school and education system are failing him. He wants to change the world for the better, he wants to cleanse it and educate others. His intentions are admirable, it's his methods that are morally like, questionable.

SPH: Dim. Dimitri. What a gift. All these characters, these four boys really, are damaged goods; that's my door in. In the first rehearsal, our director Alexandra Spencer-Jones described them as coming from broken homes. I know that, intimately. What has led him on this path - a life in which he feels he has no control or authority, so he spends his young life futilely grasping at these things to fill him up. Dim is a result of his conditioning forces, sculpted from the turmoil of his childhood leaving huge parts of him empty.

My other character, Dimitri, is a child abandoned by his father and mother, left to be raised by his strict Nana. He knows abuse. He craves love and gentle touch. Therefore, the stones that Alex throws in the form of Bastard or Impersonation of my "dimness" land on a personal, visceral level.

So much more we could delve into... Dimitri is tainted and damaged. In my mind, he unfortunately battles a viscous cycle (addictive) of deep guilt and shame, and then lashes out in anger for the hand he's been dealt in this world. Deeply conflicted. Deeply remorseful. Deeply human.

MO: Like all the other actors in the piece, I play many roles. But my primary character is Pete - the "baby" of the gang of droogs. He is incredibly wired - much of that having to do with his insane love for the drug-laced milk "moloko" - and always up for some "ultra-violence." But most importantly for me, Pete is loyal; especially to Alex. As our director often put it: Pete is Alex's puppy. Pete unreservedly loves Alex - it's not a romantic love, but I would go as far as to say it's even stronger.

For me, Pete is a boy who is very young and very lost. He sees Alex as a sort of God-like leader; someone that he can trust to protect him that Pete would do anything for. So, when Alex betrays the gang, Pete is crushed. Ultimately, he moves on with his life and becomes a policeman with the rest of the gang.

But in the last moment Pete has with Alex in the play - when the new policeman droogs savagely beat Alex - Pete does take a moment to get down to Alex's level and say a sort of "goodbye." Again, it's a strong love. It may not be romantic, but you still never forget the first friend you really loved.

BWW Interview: Jonno Davies, Sean Patrick Higgins and Misha Osherovich on A CLOCKWORK ORANGE's Haunting Themes
Jonno Davies as Alex deLarge (photo by Caitlin McNaney)

In developing your performance, did you draw strongly from the iconic literary and cinematic depictions or did you avoid it? How did you make your character new and refreshing?

JD: The piece itself sits much closer to the book than it does the film. I purposefully didn't watch the film until about a year ago. Malcolm McDowell's performance is iconic and I didn't want it to make an impression on mine. So much is happening in the world at the moment, we're more fragmented than ever and everyday there's a news story that makes A Clockwork Orange more relevant.

It's that relevancy and the sheer necessity for us as a species to change that hopefully helps drive my performance and prevents it from stagnating.

SPH: I avoided it. I read the book once before the process. I marinated in it. And then I swam around in the script to see what flared my inspiration. When something sparked, I chased it down the rabbit hole. In this way I made Dim mine. Hopefully that is new and refreshing and dangerous to audiences.

MO: Our director encouraged us to "become obsessed" with the novel - she's one smart woman. There were a lot of little hints and subtle details about the group dynamic of the droogs to be found in the book. For me, the most effective way to "find" Pete was by figuring out where he fell in the gang. Which of the droogs did he trust? Fear? When could he get away with being cheeky to Alex or pissing off Georgie? If you think of the droogs as a family, I see Pete as the Rottweiler puppy who gladly guards the home-front. So much of building Pete's character also comes from his physicality. He's always ready to spring into action - literally.

There's a moment at the beginning of the show when the four droogs threaten Deltoid (their parole officer) as a "wolf-pack" - and I swear to Christ I'm often ready to leap-frog off my chair and tackle the guy. That's what being inside Pete's head is - constantly on a nerve. Overall though, while the novel was helpful: we ultimately built our own world in this show. The piece takes place primarily through the lens of Alex's mind - something we have developed to a much greater extent than the book or the film. That's what makes this piece unique from its previous iterations.

Do you have a single favorite moment in the show for your track? And what is the most challenging aspect?

JD: For me it changes every performance. That's the beauty of live theatre, the story reinvents itself night after night. However as a storyteller, I really enjoy the effect that the final epilogue has on the audience; where they find themselves not only empathizing but sympathizing with a character that they've seen rape, kill and terrorize.

SPH: The rest of my track is hugely gratifying. I specifically find joy in Joe the Lodger, because Joe is in the driver's seat. He is king. He's winning, or at least he tells himself that. That's a fun thing to climb inside of. Most challenging part, the backstage part of my track. The hair up - hair down, quick change city that our fabulous crew assist in. They are the real heroes every night.

MO: There's a moment that, when we first started working on it in rehearsal, our director basically said to me, "No pressure, but this is one of the most important messages in the show." (So essentially a very loving "don't fuck this up.")

It's the moment when the droogs run into Alex after he has been released from prison - Pete Georgie and Dim are now police officers. Alex cries out that there was "never any trust" in the group back in the day. Pete's response: "Everything works out. Funny, the way it does."

I love this moment because it's quite literally a boy growing up into a man in one short line. It's also, for me, one of the most human moments of the play. So much of the piece is spent in a "heightened" world with loud music and fast-paced violence. But in this moment, Pete is able take a breath with Alex (and the audience) to grapple with a simple truth: you never know where life will take you.

Times have certainly changed since the book and movie came out. Certain scenarios depicted once seemed almost charming, but now come across as unarguably grotesque. What do you think it is about Alex That leaves some small part of us rooting for him?

JD: I think it's the fact that we see the world through his perspective. That's the beauty of the book and the craft of our show; we are looking through his eyes and seeing just how ugly the world really is. We understand that he sees himself as our saviour, our white knight and that everything he does, he believes, is for the benefit for us.

SPH: The inherent duality of man (and woman) makes Alex DeLarge recognizable on an almost inarticulate human level. Though he is predominantly ruled by "evil," we know that the "good" lives in him and we root for that to be stirred to the surface. We all have dark caverns of the soul, anyone who pretends they don't is lying to themselves. It is about making friends with the things that live in those caverns of ourselves...once we know them, we can then make a choice.

MO: I think we will always have a soft-spot for the "troubled teen." But also, Alex is the epitome of what it means to feel young and invincible. We've all felt that, or at least craved it: feeling like nothing can stop you and the whole world is at your feet. How can you not love a bad-boy that is living out this dream? On the flip-side, that's what makes the story so devastating - how far you can fall after feeling on top of the world.

BWW Interview: Jonno Davies, Sean Patrick Higgins and Misha Osherovich on A CLOCKWORK ORANGE's Haunting Themes
Misha Osherovich as Pete (photo by Caitlin McNaney)

Decades later, in this political climate, we find ourselves with incarceration rates at an all-time high. What aspect of the show do you feel is most relevant today, and what do you feel that modern audiences should gain or learn from this story?

JD: The fragmentation. The total division. The need for change. The young generation being left with the scraps from their predecessors. I want people to learn that this division and brutality simply does not work. There is no progress when campaigns are based on these attributes, we evolve when we're inclusive and united.

SPH: What does God want? If there is a "God." This question rings in my ears every night. Perhaps loudest the night of the Vegas shooting... the immediacy of that human choice. But just through the duration of this Fall month and a half we've had major hurricanes, civil rallies, fires where I grew up (my Mother and Aunt are still on standby for evacuation...)

So that's the most relevant question of the play for me. We don't have an answer to that question. We never will. That's most interesting. Audiences should sit with that question, whatever their beliefs, and give attention to all the ways in which our world is crying out.

MO: I believe the most relevant part of the show today is the "morality" aspect of it. There will always be a split-camp of thought on whether the experimental "Ludovico" technique used on Alex is morally sound or not. But the important thing is not who is right or who is wrong - what's most important is that it forces audiences to think. I don't mean this in the traditional (and often clichéd) sense. So much theatre out there is meant to be generically "thought provoking." That's not what I mean at all. We are living in a world and a country that has adopted apathy as a modus operandi.

Even in today's turbulent social and political climate, so many of us remain apathetic. Now is not the time for that. Positive change only comes from people forming an opinion and taking action. This piece of theatre presents a series of moral dilemmas to the audience and leaves them with a simple "now you choose what's right or wrong."

Decades later, in this political climate, we find ourselves with incarceration rates at an all-time high. What aspect of the show do you feel is most relevant today, and what do you feel that modern audiences should gain or learn from this story?

JD: The fragmentation. The total division. The need for change. The young generation being left with the scraps from their predecessors. I want people to learn that this division and brutality simply does not work. There is no progress when campaigns are based on these attributes, we evolve when we're inclusive and united.

SPH: What does God want? If there is a "God." This question rings in my ears every night. Perhaps loudest the night of the Vegas shooting... the immediacy of that human choice. But just through the duration of this Fall month and a half we've had major hurricanes, civil rallies, fires where I grew up (my Mother and Aunt are still on standby for evacuation...)

So that's the most relevant question of the play for me. We don't have an answer to that question. We never will. That's most interesting. Audiences should sit with that question, whatever their beliefs, and give attention to all the ways in which our world is crying out.

MO: I believe the most relevant part of the show today is the "morality" aspect of it. There will always be a split-camp of thought on whether the experimental "Ludovico" technique used on Alex is morally sound or not. But the important thing is not who is right or who is wrong - what's most important is that it forces audiences to think. I don't mean this in the traditional (and often clichéd) sense. So much theatre out there is meant to be generically "thought provoking." That's not what I mean at all. We are living in a world and a country that has adopted apathy as a modus operandi.

Even in today's turbulent social and political climate, so many of us remain apathetic. Now is not the time for that. Positive change only comes from people forming an opinion and taking action. This piece of theatre presents a series of moral dilemmas to the audience and leaves them with a simple "now you choose what's right or wrong."

With this being an all-male cast performing in a somewhat panto style, some have said that the particularly violent scenes of sexual assault lose a bit of their original impact. In your work with the director, what is your sense of the wildly creative approach to casting and direction? And how do you feel that the piece has been transformed through the use of an all-male cast and conceptually-abstract staging?

SPH: I think the desire was to create a more palatable voyeuristic experience in order to have audiences digest the sexual violence. Hopefully it stirs conversation - bad or good - as conversation is a step towards awareness. Awareness will hopefully beget empowerment, and perhaps victims who have encountered sexual assault will find a path to voice their experiences with those they hold dear. After all, theatre is about connection, and opening pathways of communication is step one.

MO: Without treading too heavily, it saddens me that a scene with all-male actors depicting a brutal sexual assault is seen as somehow "less" horrifying than if the same violence were to happen to a female. The focus isn't on gender or even sexuality - it's about the true awfulness that human beings are capable of. That's what you see on our stage.

The all-male cast does create a very testosterone driven feel - but I think that makes the moments of true femininity in the piece (of which there are quite a few) even more striking. Kudos to my unbelievably talented castmates who are able to access such a feminine energy on stage when embodying their female characters. As for the staging, the audience is watching the world through the lens of Alex's mind.

The genius of our director's staging is exactly that: the audience gets to experience violence and cruelty through the eyes of somebody that sees the beauty in it. You're watching a brutal scene, and tapping your foot to the music at the same time. That's beautifully uncomfortable, isn't it?

Stepping a bit outside, this is an amazingly physical piece. How do you stay healthy and energized?

JD: All the normal stuff; eat well, exercise, SLEEP!

SPH: It's my job. I live it. I trained with my dear friend Mike Rossmy this summer doing two-a-days to bring myself back into football shape. I'm an athlete, this show is like playing an intense game eight times a week. And I've kept my own training going six days a week while in the show. And stretching, always stretching!

MO: Physical health is really important with this piece. It's something that our director and Jonno impressed us very early. We always start our show with a group warm-up to get us physically and mentally warm and on the same wavelength. It's not enough to by physically warm - you have to be mentally in the same room with the cast and listening to each other. It's how we keep each other physically safe on-stage. A lot of it has to do with self-care, knowing how to treat your body right now that its doing this show eight performances a week.

Plus, I personally have become very good friends with coffee!

Have audience reactions differed between London, Singapore, Norway and NYC crowds?

JD: Oh yes - the brilliant thing about this piece is that it sparks strong reactions and opinions, much like the film did. For me, theatre is boring when I'm not talking about it afterwards.

BWW Interview: Jonno Davies, Sean Patrick Higgins and Misha Osherovich on A CLOCKWORK ORANGE's Haunting Themes
The cast (photo by Caitlin McNaney)

If you were speaking to a person who has no familiarity with the source material, sum up the show and why it's an important story to be told right now.

JD: It's an aggressive, stylized and unapologetic reflection of humankind, questioning morality and what it means to be good. Questions are important right now, they prevent us from being ignorant and they keep pressure on the powers that be.

SPH: A Clockwork Orange is the story of the anti-hero on a hero's journey in which the duality of human nature is evaluated through the power of choice.

MO: This show is about a young man who learns the hard way just how cruel the world can be. It's a high-intensity piece that forces you to see violence and cruelty through the eyes of a boy who loves it. It's a story that deals with whether it's better to be forced to be good, or to have the option of choosing to be bad. And ultimately, what it means for a boy to grow into a man.

Finally, what is one piece of music that YOU would find the most devastating to find yourself scientifically-conditioned against?

JD: JT's Future Sex Lovesounds. The whole album.

SPH: Respighi's Nottorno. My favorite piece of music, for many dear reasons.

MO: "Dream a Little Dream of Me" by Ella Fitzgerald. For the love of god, don't take away my "on the subway home - end of a long day - decompression" song.

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See the Droogies in action in A Clockwork Orange at Off-Broadway's New World Stages. For ticket and info, visit www.aclockworkorangeplay.com.

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Matt Blank is an arts journalist, educator, designer and lecturer. He most recently spent a decade on the editorial team for Playbill.com and as Editor-in-Chief of PlaybillArts.com, publishing over 7,000 articles and covering five Tony Award ceremonies. Follow him on Twitter @MattBlankPlease and Instagram @brdwymatt.



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