One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

Playwright: Adapted by Dale Wasserman from the novel by Ken Kesey
Director: Marcus Walker
Producer: Lakewood Playhouse
Dates: May 23 – June 22, 2008

Lakewood Playhouse deftly handles ‘Cuckoo’s Nest’
ALEC CLAYTON – Tacoma News Tribune
June 6, 2008

Pictured: Randy Clark as Martini, Scott C. Brown as R.P. McMurphy, and Julie Wenzel as Sandy. Photos by Dean Lapin

Pictured: Randy Clark as Martini, Scott C. Brown as R.P. McMurphy, and Julie Wenzel as Sandy. Photos by Dean Lapin

“One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” at Lakewood Playhouse is an amazing play.

For any number of reasons, it must be one of the most difficult of all modern comedy-dramas to produce. For starters, Jack Nicholson, Louise Fletcher, Brad Dourif and Will Sampson so thoroughly defined the roles of R.P. McMurphy, Nurse Ratched, Billy Bibbit and Chief Bromden in the 1975 movie that nobody can possibly play those roles without inviting comparisons. Patterning the roles after these actors would be an obvious folly, and yet to play them any other way would risk destroying the characters as Ken Kesey wrote them.

It’s an almost impossible tightrope to walk, but Scott C. Brown as McMurphy, Jenifer Rifenbery as Ratched, Mark Wenzel as Bibbit and Nathan Daniel Hicks as Bromden do it masterfully; they bring these complex and larger-than-life characters to life without making them seem like caricatures of the roles as defined by Nicholson and company. Kudos to all of these fine actors and to director Marcus Walker – and to the fine ensemble cast with terrific work from Michael Sandner, Randy Clark, Jack House, Alison Monda, Joseph Grant and others.

The storyline is familiar to just about everyone. Randle McMurphy is a fun-loving gambler and womanizer in prison for statutory rape. He feigns insanity and is sent to a mental hospital where he becomes the leader of a band of inmates at war with an evil and power-mad head nurse, Nurse Ratched, who is in many ways more insane than some of the inmates, as are two cruel aides: Williams (Samuel Kyles) and Warren (Joseph Kelly).

Like the book by Kesey but unlike the movie version, the play is narrated in an unconventional manner by Chief Bromden, who is catatonic and supposedly deaf and dumb, but who talks at night, when he is all alone, to his deceased “Papa.” This is a character who might easily seem stilted and unrealistic, but in this version, he is utterly believable as a spiritual being who struggles to emerge from his catatonic state. He is also, as written, a giant of a man, and Lakewood Playhouse was fortunate in finding an actor, Hicks, who looks the part and can act as well.

Transitions between sets are beautifully handled by otherworldly lighting by Kris Zetterstrom and eerie music by sound designer Scott Campbell while the chief talks to his Papa and, when necessary, actors quietly move props in slow motion.

Other reasons this play is difficult to produce include the necessity of walking a fine line between caricature and reality in depicting patients in an insane asylum. The director told me that he had consultants from Western State Hospital train them on the unique ticks and speech patterns of specific types of mental illness.

Finally, there is a fight scene that must be handled with the greatest dexterity to come across as real. It was so realistic that I can only hope they make it through the run of the play without injuring any of the actors.

This is a play that is extreme in its emotional impact, ranging from outlandish comedy to painful reality. It will surely leave you exhausted but satisfied. Due to the intensity of subject matter and harsh language, it is not recommended for young children.

Mind over manor – You’d be insane not to catch this performance
May 29, 2008

Pictured: Mark Wenzel as Billy Bibbit and Alison Monda as Candy Starr. Photos by Dean Lapin

Pictured: Mark Wenzel as Billy Bibbit and Alison Monda as Candy Starr. Photos by Dean Lapin

Lakewood Playhouse gets a bit dark with its staging of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, a theatrical adaptation by Dale Wasserman of the 1962 novel by Ken Kesey.

The novel isn’t all roses and mountaintop, and neither is the movie by the same name starring Jack Nicholson in the iconic role of Randle McMurphy, a devil may care troublemaker who thinks he made a good decision when he opted for time in an Oregon insane asylum rather than jail.

The theatrical adaptation, which has been revived on Broadway since it premiered in 1963, follows the book more than the movie. But seeing the movie provides a pretty good hint about the depth of the show.

For those who have not seen either, here is a quick primer.

McMurphy (played by Scott C. Brown) learns his clever wit and anti-authority behaviors have landed him in a mental hospital. He makes friends with the troubled souls the best he can but gets frustrated by their submissiveness to the head nurse, Ratched (Jenifer Rifenbery). She rules the ward with the authority of a Nazi commandant. The patients bend to her will with little more than a glance — that is until McMurphy arrives and rallies them to think for themselves.
Ratched beats down this act of McMurphy’s defiance with first a few hundred volts of electro shock therapy and then a full frontal lobotomy. He is rendered with a quality of life that can best be described as one step above a carrot. One of the patients then smothers him to death with a pillow not only save McMurphy from a life of gray nothingness but to keep the other patients from seeing his once spirited body reduced to a brainless slab. It is sort of how George kills Lenny in Of Mice and Men.

Brown, of course, was great as McMurphy as was Rifenbery as Ratched. The staging wasn’t particularly clever since the whole play was set in a hospital community room. But it was complete. The walls, gurney, nurse’s station, and sparse furniture were what I would envision a ward looking like at a nut house. Three doors onstage and offstage entrances courtesy of the theater-in-the-round made for an active stage as the drama played out.

What made this show work was the strength of the supporting cast. There were no stereotypical “crazy people”; each had their own ticks and nuances that showed the actors paid attention to their roles and developed their characters.

Blake R. York, for example, did a great job with his facial ticks as Charlie Cheswick. Of course, he has been on my radar since I saw him at Pierce College a few years ago when he played the title role in The Nerd. He is one hell of an actor because he develops those thousands of little things that make the characters rich and three dimensional. He could have easily gone over the top with his character, but he worked it instead of going the easy route. The same is true for the balance of the cast.

This is a show to watch and discuss; however, you should leave the children at home. There are some rough scenes and language.

Independent Review – Seattle Performs
May 24, 2008

Forget everything you remember from the 1976 movie, “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” Erase from your memory Jack Nicholson’s Oscar-winning performance as RP McMurphy. Don’t even think about Danny DeVito’s and Christopher Lloyd’s portrayals of hapless psychiatric patients.

Or, if you’d rather not mess with cinematic history, come on down to Pierce County and catch the Lakewood Playhouse’s masterful version of the play of the same name. If you think you know all about the story from watching the movie, “you ain’t seen nothing yet!” If this stage presentation doesn’t make you say, “Jack who?” then nothing will.

I have always felt that this story works much better as a play than a film. Director Marcus Walker and his cast at Lakewood happily prove me correct. All shows on the Lakewood stage are performed in the round. This benefits “Cuckoo’s Nest” tremendously, allowing the audience to experience the intimacy (or in this case, the claustrophobia) of the world of a psychiatric patient. The hospital’s day room and the tense and sometime harsh relationships that it contains is recreated with stunning realism.

Top-notch acting completes the picture, as each performer creates in his/her own individual role, a unique, troubling and heart-breaking story…no matter how large or small the role. Mental illness is no laughing matter, but this “Cuckoo’s Nest” brings plenty of laughter as well as tears. This is a play that will move you, amuse you and disturb you, but will never fail to entertain you.

Acting kudos go to Scott C. Brown as RP McMurphy, Nathan Daniel Hicks as Chief Bromden, Joseph Grant as Harding and Mark Wenzel as Billy Bibbit.

Scene Stealer awards go to Randy Clark as Martini (you’ve gotta see this guy to believe it!) and to Jack House in a brief but memorable appearance as Aide Turkle.

For those who live in Seattle, Lakewood is a little off the beaten path, but this “Cuckoo’s Nest” is well worth the trip down I-5. Check it out.

Published on February 25, 2009 at 6:23 am  Leave a Comment  

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