If the last time you were up in the skies was on the plane to Yale, get adventurous and fly over the cuckoo’s nest this weekend. It’s worth the extra turbulence.
In a riveting, thought-provoking production directed by Marshall Pailet ’09, “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” — a theatrical adaptation of Ken Kesey’s classic novel — focuses on the clash between Nurse Ratched, an iron lady in charge of a mental institution, and the newest patient, McMurphy, who, unlike the rest, refuses to play by the nurse’s sadistic rules. The conflict intensifies once McMurphy attempts to restore the others’ desire for freedom by openly disobeying regulations in a risky act of rebellion that will eventually lead to the awakening of spirits and wills, but at a great cost.
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The play stays true to the plot of the novel, dutifully depicting all the key episodes of McMurphy’s battle against conformism and institutionalized abuse. At the same time, however, it does not hesitate to push the envelope just enough to add a couple fresh touches to a well-known story. This production offers an intriguing approach to the work by experimenting with lighting and the motion of the actors on stage.
From gloomy, eerie-looking blue and red lights during the monologues of Chief Bromden (Brian Young ’10) to intense and disturbing strobe lights during the electroshock therapy scene, significant moments are underscored through effective use of lighting. In another bit of inventive staging, the actors move unnaturally for a few seconds, imitating slow-motion and giving the play a nearly cinematic quality. There are also a few surprises hidden within the actors’ parts themselves, like the way in which pushing a button on a nurse’s back immediately turns her into Candy Star and then back again, as needed, or how at some point Billy (Tommy Crawford ’09) easily transforms into the Doctor after the Chief, who had been playing the doctor until then, suddenly refuses to.
The background music is well-chosen and helps establish the mood for the scenes. The cheery, repetitively therapeutic tune illustrates the falsity of the illusory peace and happiness induced in the patients. The music playing during the monologue scenes evokes a pensive mood and calls for reflection, while the soundtrack for McMurphy’s electrocution combines well with the lighting to create a disconcerting effect.
The best parts of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” though, are the actors’ performances. Matthew Strother ’08 is an arrogant and provocative, but at the same time charismatic and energetic, McMurphy. He plays the part with ease and enthusiasm and is single-handedly responsible for most of the chuckles the play will elicit from the audience. The rest of the cast, both skillful and spirited almost without exception, revels in portraying insanity. Every actor has a signature sign of madness, be it a repeated gesture or general attitude. Daniel Blech ’09, in the role of Martini, stares intently into empty space, occasionally addressing people visible only in his own hallucinations, with a concentrated yet vacant expression and inexplicably happy smile on his face. Crawford stutters and whines as the painfully shy and tormented Billy, inspiring feelings of both pity and uneasiness. Near them, John Hansen-Brevetti ’08 (Cheswick) is busy sucking on his thumb in a hunched, almost embryo-like pose.
Ironically, though, the play’s main weakness is also in the acting. Compared to the rest of the cast’s performances, Cordelia Istel ’10 as Nurse Ratched is both less colorful and less convincing. While she has captured some of the features of her character and presents them well, there are aspects of the control-freak dominant personality that are lost in her portrayal of the Nurse. Istel nails the cold and restrained aspect of it, but the authoritative and quietly menacing aura about the Nurse that makes a grown man cringe and obey unconditionally is simply not there.
Still, it’s advisable to make the trip to Swing Space this weekend for this production: It completes the daunting task of presenting a famous and loved story well enough that fans of the novel or the movie won’t be disappointed.