At Studio 58 until November 30, 2014
Posted November 17, 2014
Head nurses can’t order electroshock therapy or frontal lobotomies (if they ever did) for rebellious patients as Nurse Ratched does in Ken Kesey’s 1962 novel. But in spite of all our modern medicine and advanced psychotherapy, we still haven’t solved the problems of the mentally ill. They’re now on the Downtown East Side and the challenges have simply moved out of asylums and hospitals down to Main and Hastings where the afflicted get little, if any, respect.
Written by Kesey as a novel, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest was adapted for stage by Dale Wasserman in 1964 with Kirk Douglas in the lead. Eleven years later the film version with the incomparable Jack Nicholson swept all five categories of the Academy Awards, only the second time in the Award’s history that a film had been so honored.
Patrick McDonald directs this cast of sixteen Studio 58 students and under his tutelage each young actor carves out a unique and memorable character. Mike Gill, who does an excellent turn as seemingly ‘normal’ Mr. Harding, told me after the show that playwright George F. Walker says he spends just as much time writing the minor characters as he does the major ones; so why wouldn’t actors in supporting roles work just as hard to make those characters multi-dimensional? These student actors all work that hard.
Studio 58 excels at ensemble playing and tries to to refrain from showing off ‘stars’. But really, this show is full of them. From John Cook (as Chief Bromden) and Erin Cassidy as nasty, control freak Nurse Ratched through Owen Bishop as stammering Billy, Carlen Escarraga (Cheswick), Arash Ghorbani (Martini), Derick Neumeier (Scanlon), Robert Garry Haacke (Ruckley) to Markian Tarasiuk (Randle P. McMurphy), they are all stars. Not a weak performance here: even Haacke who, as lobotomized Ruckley, stands motionless like a crucified Christ or a makeshift basketball hoop, makes the character human, not simply some mindless creature.
The story is told from the point of view of Bromden, a half-Indian who has been on the ward the longest. John Cook fills the role perfectly with his dark soulful eyes and, most importantly, his bulk. As the story unrolls the focus shifts back and forth to Bromden who sorrowfully recalls growing up wild and free. Now he harbours crippling fears of something called The Combine which sounds, in 60s terms, like The Man or The System.
When McMurphy arrives – evading prison for statutory rape by faking mental illness – all hell breaks loose on the ward. He’s a live wire, a gambler, drinker and womanizer and he’s determined to bring some light – and some life – into the ward. Markian Tarasiuk is simply wired in this role – possibly a little too much but no doubt he’ll relax a little over the course of the run. The role is so good, so well written; he doesn’t really have to work it.
Erin Cassidy’s Nurse Ratched is vicious, relentless and utterly believable – in spite of the actor’s youth. You do just want to jump up and strangle that wretched Ratched.
Pam Johnson’s set is wide, wide, wide: a slightly rundown institutional puke-y green with a glassed-in nurses’ station stage right. Darren Boquist’s lighting takes us from daylight to night and is especially effective when isolating Bromden in his soliloquys.
The highlights of this production are, as they almost always are with Studio 58, the ensemble scenes when the cast gets to cut loose. There are several times in this show when you just want to stand up and woo-hoo: the World Series on TV; the basketball game; and the big party. These are moments of irrepressible joy.
The ‘lowlight’ is the unnecessary music that underscores the last scene between Bromden and McMurphy. We know it’s sad; we don’t need music to tell us. It’s a small complaint.
Kesey’s title refers to a children’s verse of the ‘this-little-piggy’ variety:
“Three geese in a flock/One flew east, one flew west/One flew over the cuckoo’s nest/O-U-T spells OUT/Goose swoops down and plucks you out.”
This is yet another very fine production from Studio 58 and well worth getting O-U-T for.