Tuesday, July 09, 2002

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (Porthouse Theatre/KSU)

Insightful, humorous 'ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO'S NEST' at Porthouse

In his early 20s Ken Kesey volunteered to be a subject in experiments with hallucinogenic drugs. Near the end of the trial, he began working the night shift in a mental ward. He began to believe that the patients weren't really crazy after all, just more individualized than society was willing to accept. The result of his experiences was the book 'ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO'S NEST.'

The book, considered by many to be a masterpiece, was widely used as required reading in colleges just as baby boomers began to challenge authority. The movie and play versions have both received critical acclaim.

The play, penned by Dale Wasserman, effectively develops the theme of the book. It is a grim satire set among the patients and workers in a mental institution. It tells the story of Randle McMurphy, an energetic con man, who seeks institutionalization as a means of escaping the rigors of a prison work farm without realizing that his short stay may turn out to be forever as he has given up his rights when he entered the facility. Before long, in order to reduce the sexual and emotional impotence of the men at the institution, he challenges the dictatorial Nurse Ratched. McMurphy becomes a hero, changing the lives of the inmates, but pays for his defiance with consequences that bring a startling conclusion to the story.

This is a very difficult script to produce. Its many nuances require unique acting skills as each character is finely developed, even those who do not speak. The Porthouse production, under the adept direction of Sue Ott Rowlands, is startlingly forceful. Rowlands hones fine performances from her cast, paces the production with precision, and competently leads the audience through the humor and pathos.

Rowlands is ably assisted by a fine technical crew. Nolan O’Dell’s sterile set adds to the feeling of isolation and despair. Emily Cooper’s costumes give us clear pictures of each character.

But most important is the cast. Annie Fitzpatrick, who portrays Nurse Ratched, received one of the highest compliments an actress can receive...she was booed during the curtain call. She was so effective in her controlled performance that the members of the audience came to hate Nurse Ratched, and could not separate Fitzpatrick from the character, even when the play was over.

Marty Lode, as McMurphy, was the perfect foil for Ratched. He teased, taunted, feigned and struck with the effectiveness of a boa constrictor. He was charming and manipulative in a totally natural way. Never did acting get in the way of clarity of character development.

Donald Clark was pathetically perfect as the stuttering, mother-controlled man child Billy. Adam Hoffman’s twisting hands, inappropriate grins, Albert Einstein hairdo, and bulging eyes made Anthony Martini a living being. Dudley Swetland, made the role of Dale Harding his. The best educated of the men on the ward, Harding gives the audience much of the information we need. He tells McMurphy how Nurse Ratched is able to maintain her power, how electroshock therapy works, what a lobotomy does to people. Swetland gives us hope as we see him change and seems ready to move on thanks to McMurphy. Chief Bromden often acts as our Greek chorus and guides us through the play. He is a tall and strong Native American who feigns muteness and deafness to protect himself from pain. McMurphy rescues him from his silence. He, in turn, rescues McMurphy from life as a vegetable. Michael Greyeyes gives a powerful and finely tuned performance as the Chief.

'ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO'S NEST' is a play filled with questions. It asks, what is insanity? What is morality? It challenges the symbols of conformity and the role of therapeutic intervention. It probes human freedom versus control.

Capsule judgement: 'ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO'S NEST' is a powerful play, given an intelligent, sensitive, and insightful production at Porthouse Theatre. It’s a winner!