One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

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One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest


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Stage Acting Studio

at the Theatre Building

You don't have to feel persecuted to savor One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, but it helps. Fortunately Ken Kesey's masterpiece tapped into a force that didn't die with the 60s or with the Merry Pranksters--Americans' distrust of institutions that define our good by what they deny us. No one ever thought Kesey's 1962 novel was just about a rebel in a loony bin: Randall McMurphy was a genuine counterculture beat warrior, like Kerouac, Brando, James Dean, and Lenny Bruce; and Nurse Ratched stood for everything repressive in American life (including U.S. involvement in Vietnam, just about to begin).

Still, this is a fable set not in a symbolic microcosm but in a specific state mental hospital in the northwest, as seen by Chief Bromden, the last of his tribe and the Ishmael who escapes to tell the story of the revolution McMurphy initiates. The drugged-up inmate/patients, rabbits to be exploited by Nurse Ratched, include the acerbic Harding, who's terrified of his wife and unsure of his sexuality; Scanlon, who sees bombs everywhere (not so crazy during the Cold War or today); lobotomized Ruckly, who becomes the show's most useful prop; and Martini, who hallucinates better stuff than what's really going on around him. Sadistically exploiting their pain, Ratched turns group-therapy sessions into blame-the-victim parties. To keep them cowed, she resorts to a vast menu of coercive manipulation, inflicting on them everything from Lawrence Welk records to restraints to electroshock to lobotomies. (Ratched would have made a great Chicago cop.)

The unequal power struggle between wolf and rabbits (though it's no more unfair than life itself) cries out for requital: the unlikely source--and inevitable martyr--is McMurphy, a free-spirited, foulmouthed, horny vet, gambler, brawler, and possible rapist who fakes lunacy to get out of going to jail. Like Christ purifying the temple (he's compared to Jesus throughout), McMurphy stirs the inmates into a therapeutic rebellion. When Ratched takes away their TV privileges during a taut World Series game, they defy her and pretend it's still on, a triumph of imagination over pettiness. But the party McMurphy throws--sneaking in booze and two good-time girls--proves his undoing, as shy, stuttering Billy Bibbit gets caught losing his virginity.

Last seen over two decades ago in stirring stagings at the old 11th Street Theatre (now Columbia College's Getz Theatre) and the now-defunct Arlington Park Theater, Dale Wasserman's faithful stage adaptation preserves the claustrophobia of the original (better than Milos Forman's sprawling 1975 film version, in which Jack Nicholson ate up a ton of scenery and Louise Fletcher, cryonic as the nurse from hell, seemed, if possible, even more larger-than-life than the role demanded).

Unfortunately, Wasserman's adaptation also preserves the misogyny Kesey lavished on Nurse Ratched, Billy Bibbit's unseen mother, Harding's unseen wife, and the whores in the party scene (among other sensitive songs, rapist McMurphy loves to sing "Pussy's Gonna Be the Death of Me"). Clearly Kesey sees women as mantraps and control freaks who lose their danger only during sex. But then, most 60s radicals had a big blind spot when it came to women.

Misogyny is the least of the afflictions dogging this tepid staging by the Stage Acting Studio, however. A revival marking the script's 30th anniversary, Stephan Turner's fatally tentative, terminally glacial staging reduces Wasserman's intelligent dialogue to obvious telegrams and the action to aimless blocking. (The group-meeting chairs are lined up in a row, as if the inmates know they can't turn their backs on the audience.) Free of tension and interest alike, scenes repeatedly run out of energy, get feebly jump started, then fizzle out again. The one accurate depiction is of the tedium of life in an asylum; that they get so right it hurts. But you still don't care if any inmate ever gets out.

If there's more to McMurphy than brashness and petulance, you can't tell from Laurence Bryan's uncharismatic performance. Like many here, Bryan goes for the obvious, leaving nothing to be uncovered later. Shouting isn't enough; this role takes thinking too.

If Bryan's McMurphy doesn't seem to enjoy harassing hateful Ratched, blame it on Jennifer Shattuck's portrayal. She makes Kesey's complex tyrant seem a grouchy Girl Scout, missing the character completely: this Ratched is all too flappable and menace-free. Rather than slowly turn up the pressure in the cooker until the witch/nurse explodes, she gives the game away by losing her calm early and often. There's no presence, mean or antiseptic, to this wretched Ratched.

As Chief Bromden, heavy-metal singer Rick Atkins offers stoic dignity but doesn't suggest the huge changes Bromden undergoes. In an interesting casting choice, muscular Daniel Barcelona plays mousy Billy, suggesting that the boy's self-image is out of kilter with the facts. But it can't work--Billy knows himself too well.

Two performances stand out on their merits, not just by default: John M. Creighton as warmly sardonic Scanlon, a cunningly restrained portrait amid the blatant, and Samuel L. Brooks Jr. as a blues-singing nurse's aide who literally drinks it all in.

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