February 14, 2002

The Bird Has Landed

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Usually, to say that the intermission is the most engrossing part of the production is hardly a compliment to it. In the case of the current CTA production of One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, however, it is a testimony to the unique power of theater. The story of Randall P. McMurphy (Joe Hickley) was first told by Ken Kesey in his late 60’s novel of rebellion and societal hypocrisy. The sane madman was then burned indelibly into American consciousness by Jack Nicholson under Milos Forman’s subversive direction. This thrice-told tale now comes to the stage bearing the baggage of its two previous incarnations and perceptions of a strictly period piece.

CTA’s production illustrates the challenges of adapting a story from another medium without losing the heart of the piece. Director Beth Milles accomplishes the neat reimagining of Nurse Ratched’s (Tracey Huffman) mental ward by borrowing from twentieth century absurdist drama and ancient Greek tragedy. The character of Chief Bromden (Franz Jones) is here employed as a one man dramatic chorus. He does not directly comment on the action, but plunges the audience directly into the alienation and terror experienced by society’s cast-offs, or, as he refers to them “those loose in the world.” Even more effectively, the production appropriates Peter Weiss’s device from Marat / Sade. Weiss’s play, like this one, was set in a mad house. Weiss effectively locked the audience in with the inmates by having a sort of ‘silent ensemble of the damned.’ A dozen or so extras wandered the theater before, during, and after the performance in varying states of raving, lucidity, or catatonia. Milles creates much the same effect here with her use of the wards ‘chronics’ and omnipresent white-coated aides.

Staging the production in the large black box (the Flexible Theatre), the set is dominated by two large steel mesh doors on either extreme of the stage. Once the action starts, the doors are closed, and the audience is effectively part of the ward. The illusion is maintained during intermission by three of the actors, who stay in character to engage in a singular chess game and a remarkable display of paranoia involving bingo. The improvisation adds immeasurably to the production and smoothes over the transition between acts. It solidifies the ward in the audience’s mind; it is a real place, and the inmates were there before we came. They will be there long after we’ve left.

The inmates say as much to McMurphy, the play’s unlikely hero. McMurphy is a grifter and gambler who found the work farm too “boring” and is hoping to serve out the rest of his sentence on easy street: in the mental hospital. Signed into the ‘acute’ ward, McMurphy makes the acquaintance of his “fellow psychotics,” to quote the chair of the patient’s counsel, Dale Harding (Brian Russell). The other denizens range from the lobotomized Ruckly (Venkatesh Thattai), the post-traumatically stressed Martini (Stephan Wolfert), Oedipal Billy (Ben Williams) and paranoiac Scanlon (Tony Hogrebe). Every possible state of madness and sanity is represented on the ward. Most of the patients are voluntarily committed, and observing the frighteningly lucid Harding one can’t help remembering Joseph Heller’s Catch-22: those who worry about their sanity are probably not insane. In fact, the most pronounced pathology at times resides in the domineering personage of Nurse Ratched, who has no life outside of “her boys.” Free-spirit McMurphy can’t tolerate the arbitrary rule and condescension of Big Nurse and enters into a war of minds and wills which drives the play to its inevitable, tragic conclusion.

The material is rife with opportunities for grandstanding and scenery chewing, inextricably linked to a period long past and risks making the main character into the easy Christ figure that the anti-heroes of the seventies reacted so strongly against. It is here that the innate vitality of the theatrical tradition improves upon the source. The Flex Theatre is the perfect venue for the play. Instead of one-upping each other in a bid for the camera’s attention, different actors are simultaneously the focus for different portions of the audience. The effect is one of an incredible layering and texture; it lends an air of verisimilitude to the proceedings and fleshes out the world of the play. First off, we get a much more self-deprecating, more appealing hero. The slower rhythm of continuous action (instead of cinematic cross-cuts) allows for a more nuanced (and consequently more troubling) interpretation of Big Nurse, who seems to genuinely like some of her charges — and still destroys them. Finally, divorced from its anti-establishment, pseudo-beat origins, the text reveals itself as a truly timeless statement about community, freedom of choice, and taboo. Through the cast-offs of society, the play questions the ability of that society to justify itself to all its constituents.

Archived article by Erica Stein