If you’re like me, your memories of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest center around Jack Nicholson, in Miloš Forman’s 1975 movie. I watched it repeatedly in high school, and I read Ken Kesey’s 1962 novel (which underwhelmed me). I recall the dominant theme as liberation from societal oppression. The novel was much more of a head trip than I recognized back then; Bo Goldman simplified and literalized the movie’s plot, which makes a cleaner narrative flow. Dale Wasserman’s play, which I’d never read or seen before last night, was written shortly after the novel and hews much closer to the source. That’s good and bad for many reasons, but it does put the head trip back into play.
Players of Utica’s final production of the season is a pretty big swing, and if the ball doesn’t quite get over the fence it’s a solid triple. I think this is director Eric Almleaf’s strongest work for Players, featuring very funny ensemble acting, clever use of space and wittily minimalist set, sound and lighting. Like the best productions in the State St. black box, technical liabilities are sometimes repurposed as advantages.
Andy Vogel plays McMurphy, a delinquent who fakes mental illness to avoid serving jail time. I liked Vogel in Ilion Little Theater’s The Psychic; I loved him in this role. It’s no small challenge to inhabit a character made iconic by a huge star, but Vogel holds the audience (and his fellow performers) with easy charisma. He’s especially good when his confidence falters – communicated by slight hesitations and delayed facial adjustments. Jenn Rubino matches him as Nurse Ratched, the psychiatric ward’s domineering matriarch/overlord. Rubino changes her expression on a dime when confronted with resistance to her authority, externalizing for the audience her internal calculations. I hated her character as much as I hated Louise Fletcher in the movie, and Fletcher won Best Actress.
Ratched is a problematic character though. She highlights a pervading fear of women (not quite misogyny) in the material that I’d forgotten. The movie tones it down, but the emasculating power of women is central in Kesey’s novel and Wasserman’s adaptation. Ratched identifies the men’s sexual insecurities (all of the patients are men) and pokes and digs at them to maintain control. McMurphy was convicted for statutory rape, but insists he was fooled. The jousting between Ratched and McMurphy is largely sexual; he loses when he finally assaults her, but achieves victory in that defeat because the patients are no longer cowed by Ratched. (Yes, sexual violence as liberation. Also, Kesey makes McMurphy’s “sacrifice” explicitly Christlike, an overblown metaphor that doesn’t sit well, and is thankfully not emphasized by director Almleaf.) More down-on-women stuff: Chief Bromden tells a story about how his mother humiliated and reduced his father, which ultimately led to his own depression.
Adam Kaczor plays Bromden, the novel’s narrator and arguably the play’s central character. This is where I wish Players had a bit more to offer in terms of space and technical possibilities. Kaczor delivers a series of head-space monologues that are beautiful and intriguing, but they’re (appropriately) delivered in a low voice, from the extreme sides of the stage. Where these lovely soliloquies might have been augmented by audio assistance (maybe some reverb) they are too low-key to make the impact they should. Likewise, their importance might have been reinforced if delivered more centrally – although the set pieces and lighting choices are clever, they don’t deliver enough to make Bromden’s monologues really stick. With those qualms aside (and certainly the director and actor made defensible choices) I enjoyed Kaczor’s physicality in the part – another actor to keep an eye on.
The first act was well paced and blocked. The central ensemble (Lonnie Etter, Kris Majka, James Willsey, Andres Banks, Joseph Scott, and Ben Frawley, also Stephen Wagner as the doctor) generates consistent laughs and could have easily supported an entire play on their own – I’d go to that comedy. The aides and nurses, doctors and prostitutes (it’s a very large cast) all occupied the space believably and helped with scenery moves (I wish those had been lit, with a bit more choreography to the action. A quibble, but they sometimes took awhile, so why not incorporate them?)
The set looked like a child’s cardboard construction of a dreary mental ward – disappointing at first, until it started to seem intentional. Almleaf’s director’s note provides a clue: “I have chosen to focus on…the Chief’s journey towards freedom by taking the hospital out of a definable time period and to some degree, a definable reality.” The electroshock machine is a funny creation, as was the technician’s extended manipulation of its many knobs. Bromden’s monologue headspaces also seem purposely representative – some kind of ceremonial decoration on the stage left side, an obviously fake waterfall off right. The cumulative phoniness works. Stage lighting was limited as usual at Players, but with unobtrusive followspot fills it supported the material.
The opening night audience was packed, and gave the performers a deserved standing ovation. I was a bit disconcerted by the second act, but I think I was struggling with the playwright’s decisions. As I said, some of the thematic material can be troubling (the gender warfare, the religious iconography) and although Almleaf was working his own angles the rest was still in there. I recommend this production for the superb cast and the solid tech work. I’ll take up my reservations with Kesey and Wasserman another time.