Pillow Talking’s Review of ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST at the Bijou Theatre
Someday Productions LLC and Pillow Talking are pleased to present the following review of One Flew Over thee Cuckoo’s Nest
For information or tickets see The Bijou Theatre website
I remember reading Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest in high school and being forever changed. Even at that early stage of my burgeoning “culture vulturism,” I could recognize the difference between books and literature (somewhat akin to the difference between movies and film). The narration of the book by the character of Chief Bromden (which reportedly Kesey wrote most of while on acid) reminded me of Faulkner’s Sound and Fury. I immediately became a Kesey fan and read his other novel Sometimes a Great Notion.
I knew that in 1963, Kirk Douglas had performed the Broadway play version written by Dale Wasserman and purportedly bought the film rights from Kesey for $20,000. Douglas tried for ten years to get the play turned into a film until he became too old to play the part. His son Michael finally produced it with Miloš Forman directing and Jack Nicholson as Randle Patrick McMurphy (after Gene Hackman and Burt Reynolds were considered for the role). The film swept all major categories at the Oscars (a feat that went undone for more than a decade until Silence of the Lambs).
I don’t usually pontificate so much about a production (except to my wife or my communications class), but Cuckoo’s Nest is one of my all-time favorite novels and films. When I heard that there was going to be a revival of the play at The Bijou Theatre, directed by Tanya Feduik-Smith, I was both thrilled and apprehensive. Can any version today live up to Miloš Forman’s vision or Jack Nicholson’s portrayal?
After having the opportunity to see Cuckoo’s Nest, I honestly must say I was greatly disappointed…I was disappointed because the play has a limited run. IT WAS SIMPLY GREAT and I can now remove seeing the play version off of my bucket list.
Kesey’s book differs from the film (Kesey reportedly never saw the film and was upset that it didn’t use Chief Bromden as the narrator). The play is like the book in its reliance on the Chief as the common thread and narrator and therein lies the reason for play’s success. The book stands alone as a great work of fiction; the film stands alone as a great work of cinema; and this version of the play stands alone as a great work of theatre. Once you get past that, comparisons between the book and film fall away and the play is enjoyable on its own terms.
The plot is archetypal – Randle Patrick McMurphy (RPM) a rebel-without-a-cause figure (some critiques have even alluded to RPM as a Christ-like figure) is introduced into the ward of a mental hospital and does what doctors, therapists and nurses could not do – provides REAL “therapy” to the mental patients (who become his apostles) by giving them back respect, independence and a lust for life. His arch nemesis is Nurse Ratched, the psychiatric nurse on the ward.
Tanya Feduik-Smith has masterfully directed a searing yet poignant production that can stand with its prior predecessors. The casting was brilliant. (Geez, it’s so hard to keep thinking of different but well-deserved superlatives). Broadway director Pam McKinnon watch out – Ms. Feduik-Smith is on the move after this play.
Veteran actor Geoffrey Gilbert was wonderful as the brash but charismatic RPM who sends the mental ward into a state of chaos. He makes the part his own and by the end of the play any traces of comparison to Nicholson were firmly washed away. Apparently he also doubles as a stuntman, for he was the Fight Choreographer for the realistic fight scenes.
It takes a big man to play Chief Bromden (Will Sampson 6’ 5” played the part in the film; and Ed Ames showed he was more than Daniel Boone’s TV sidekick by playing it on Broadway). This production had a big man in veteran actor and Bridgeport native Paul Brown. Brown brought just the right mix of strength and sensitivity to the role.
Nurse Ratched, a tough part to play, was expertly handled by Avery Eady. Her portrayal as an instrument of evil rather than the personification of evil itself (which was Louise Fletcher’s take as well) was excellent. She was able to get under your skin with her subtle jabbing and pecking at the mental patients. Dr. Spivey (who was actually cast as a real male physician in the film) was played with great verisimilitude by experienced actress Bryn Berg. Dr. Spivey served as the perfect foil for Ratched’s constant overreaching of her authority.
Newcomer Jhulenty Delossantos had huge shoes to fill playing stutterer Billy Bibbit (Oscar-nominated Brad Dourif won the British Academy Award for the film version and Gene Wilder played it on Broadway with Douglas). Delossantos fills those big shoes nicely and like his co-star Gilbert, makes the part his own. He brings just the right touch of vulnerability and charm to the role.
The rest of the ensemble cast is fantastic. At one point it seemed as though they were really escaped mental patients rather than actors. Tom Torpey as Martini was awesome whether he was flossing his teeth, taking the lining out of his slipper, playing imaginary basketball or, my favorite, playing with his sock puppet. He was on in every moment of the play. Christopher Cooney as Scanlon, Daniel J. Mulvill as Cheswick and William Cody as Ruckley each brought their own very special idiosyncratic gestures and mannerisms to their roles. Special notice should be given to John R. Smith, Jr as Dale Harding, the leading spokesperson for the patients. He is the director’s husband, but nepotism be damned – he was great in the role.
Kudos to all of the Aides in the play whose authoritative presence always was felt – Aide Turkle (Brian J. Alvarado); Aide Williams (Ainsley Andrade) and Aide Warren (Nick Kaye). Special shout out to Mr. Kaye – nicely showing the arc of his character when he paid special homage to RPM at the end. (Mr. Kaye was also a multi-hyphenate behind the scenes serving as Set Designer and a major part of the set construction – which, by the way, was excellent).
Last but not least, the temptresses Candy Starr and Sandra were played spot-on by, respectively, Betzabeth Castro and Nicole Yatsenick (who also doubled as Nurse Flinn).
The Bijou Theatre is a great old style theatre combining elements of cabaret style entertainment and traditional seating. Revivals of Cuckoo’s Nest are rare. This particular version is staggeringly well-done. You should put aside whatever you are doing and make it to the theatre to see it before it flies over the cuckoo’s nest– and is gone.
I recall the first time I saw the 1975 film One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest; I was well beyond my college and graduate school training and already a psychotherapist— I truly have no idea why it wasn’t required viewing (or reading – Ken Kesey’s book by the same name was published in 1962). I was riveted. Jack Nicholson blew my mind. Ultimately I sat there in a puddle of unceasing tears; I was watching it by myself so I didn’t even try to hold them back. I say it was the first time, but I actually haven’t had the heart to watch it again in its entirety since then because it affected me so greatly; I’ve only seen parts of it occasionally over the years.
I had never seen the play, however, until the wonderful opportunity came our way to do so at Bridgeport’s The Bijou Theatre. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, with book by Dale Wasserman and directed by Tanya Feduik-Smith was a smashing success. Feduik-Smith should be quite proud of her return to directing after a 15-year absence; her choice to do so with this particular work was an impressive one.
In the early days of psychology, there were both conflicting schools of thought as well as limited understanding about the proper therapies for the management of psychological disorders as well as little ethical concern for working with individuals with such afflictions. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is a story about the maltreatment of hospitalized psychiatric patients, with punishment, humiliation, and medical abuse among the customary actions employed.
Told from the perspective of one mental patient, Chief Bromden, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest shows the unraveling of both the authoritarian psychiatric ward as well as its iron-fisted supervisor, Nurse Ratched, by the introduction of the wily and manipulative Randle P. McMurphy. McMurphy is neither mentally ill nor in need of psychiatric intervention, he simply is there of his own accord – in an effort to get out of the prison work farm, hoping for a more relaxed and leisurely way to serve out his sentence.
Paul Brown as Chief Bromden was a wonderful choice. Bromden’s narration is threaded through the performance with the use of spotlight and a backdrop video screen image, akin to the cogs of the human mind. Bromden is a large man who feels small – and it is throughout the arc of the play that eventually he becomes elevated to his true stature.
Introduce the band of psychiatric patients – as colorful and layered as would be expected. Each character brought to the stage something different, subtle yet at the same time clearly conveyed; none overshadowing another but each as a stand-out in his own right. In no particular order, “acutes” on the ward, Scanlon (Christopher Cooney), Cheswick (Daniel J. Mulvihill), and Ruckley (William Cody) are among those who become affected (or should I say infected), altered, their mental states improved by the mere presence of the charismatic Randle P. McMurphy, who was terrifically played by Geoffrey Gilbert, a classically-trained actor with an impressive list of credits to his name. Gilbert’s McMurphy channeled a bit of Nicholson and succeeded in breathing life into the ward’s patients, as well as many of the staff, with his unrelenting lobbing at the hardhearted Nurse Ratched.
Special mention also must be made to Martini, played by Tom Torpey whose acting career only spans the past three years; his quirky mannerisms including making a puppet from his sock, flossing his teeth, and playing imaginary basketball, did at times steal some scenes, although you had to be paying attention to catch it all. John R. Smith, Jr. as Dale Harding was incredible – Harding in many ways is the “sanest,” is most often the voice of reason on the ward as President of the Patient’s Council, although he is weak in his own sense of self. Momma’s boy Billy Bibbit, the stuttering youngster of the group was skillfully played by Jhulenty Delossantos, theater arts major and newcomer to the stage. Jhulenty brought the perfect blend of naivete, vulnerability, and powerlessness to the role with a believable stutter.
Nurse Ratched, played well by Avery Eady uses her subtle control of the patients to oppress them and keep the ward in order. Bryn Berg’s Dr. Spivey succumbs to Ratched’s authority with the appropriate amount of submission, yet in the end, comes full circle and stands up to the tyranny. Aides Turkle, Williams, and Warren played by Brian J. Alvarado, Ainsley Andrade, and Nick Kaye, respectively, also are outstanding. Kaye also served as Set Designer; he, along with William Feduik, Berg, Smith, Jr., and Cooney did set construction. The uncomplicated, somewhat sparse set created a believable patient day room, making good use of the small, black box space of The Bijou.
Nurse Flinn/Sandra (Nicole Yatsenick) and Candy Starr (Betzabeth Castro) rounded out the cast, providing excellent support to the production.
Feduik-Smith’s approach to the Cuckoo’s Nest appeared to have been straightforward – to highlight the seriousness of the story without overdoing the comedy; she allowed the actors to develop and portray their characters as unique individuals without becoming caricatures of mental patients. As in life, even in the darkest of times we find humor – but she didn’t overuse this device, instead doling it out sparingly and appropriately.
There was a reason I pursued psychology as a career, as I am someone greatly affected by the human condition. It is this empathy, the psychological identification with the feelings, thoughts, or attitudes of others, which draws me to stories like One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. When many shy away from sad movies, books, and the like as being “too depressing,” I seek them out.
Overall, this ensemble’s performance did the iconic and important story justice – there never can be too much understanding of mental illness and those affected by it. The Bijou provides a limited run – six shows over two weekends, in a great space with not one bad seat in the house. This one is a must-see!
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