One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest
Local Arts Reviews
Reviewed by Heather Barfield Cole, Fri., July 2, 2004
One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest
Mary Moody Northen Theatre, through July 11
Running Time: 3 hrs
One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest is a tale of many conflicts, but at its core is a battle between good and evil. Randle Patrick McMurphy is a rabble-rouser in an asylum of mentally incompetent males, a man's man out to stiffen his fellow inmates' flaccid masculinities. But in the looming domineering figure of Nurse Ratched, McMurphy faces the greatest challenge of his life: a woman harboring more power than he.
St. Edward's University has bravely undertaken Ken Kesey's counterculture classic with guest director J. Ed Araiza, who uses the Mary Moody Northen Theatre's arena stage as a viewing chamber, with the audience above looking into the madhouse below. With our tickets, we are given our "pills" and instructed with whistles and regulation by attendants in white robes. We walk past dated medical equipment glass vials of labeled drugs, typewriters, gauze, and rubber gloves to enter the space through swinging doors painted white with windows of black mesh. In the arena, two television monitors are positioned above the playing area, showing our movement into the space. The floor of the set is tile with whitewashed walls; fluorescent bulbs circle above, casting their dizzying monotone of light onto the stage. Once the play begins, something creepy has already been stirred up through ambience alone. We are somehow imprisoned here along with the characters. Buckle up, straightjacket on or off?
The dramatic arc of the production is solid and supported with strong performances. Brent Werzner simply owns the role of R.P. McMurphy without apology. He's big in voice and energy, with a dazzling smile that makes you want to like him. His enemy, Nurse Ratched, is controlled and sneaky in the person of Elizabeth Wakehouse. She glides noiselessly across the slick, stark floor, hair tied tightly in a bun, bright red lipstick emphasizing her thwarted femininity. Nurse Ratched encapsulates conflicting shades of female power from Oedipal-Freudian desire to working girl to caregiver and disciplinarian. The only glitch in this production is that I am supposed to despise Nurse "Rat Shit," I mean really hate her, so that by the end of it all, I feel McMurphy is justified in his violence toward her. Wakehouse needs more spit and fire boiling under that cool exterior; without that obstinate force, it becomes difficult to understand her motives. And if the antipathy of Ratched is missing, then McMurphy is just another loony locked up in the ward and not the local savior who helps free at least one of the men: the Indian Chief Bromden.
Tito Menchaca's Chief is appropriately brooding and silent until his shining moment when McMurphy lures him awake. The effeminate gentleman Dale Harding is delightfully accomplished by Jason Newman. Other performances walk a very fine line; to play "crazy" is clichéd and easily laughable if weakly done, but actors such as Gabriel McIver as bomb-obsessed Scanlon or Jeffery Mills as the stuttering, perpetually shy Billy Bibbit prove that smart choices had been made. Then there are silent actors who eerily linger about the stage like sick ghosts haunting the ward.
This show is, strangely, a good time. Wasserman's adaptation of the Kesey novel maintains the hipness and wit necessary to lighten the show's morbidity; plus, this company at the Mary Moody Northen Theatre understands how to engage subtleties with fortitude and grit.