This Week in Broken Drinking Fountains
Thursday, 19 January 2006
One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest

Casting Rude Guerrilla Theatre Co.'s current stage production of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest must've been a hard sell for director Gregory Cohen because self-sacrifice isn't at the top of a typical OC actor's list. But whatever methods he used worked: Rude Guerrilla's Cuckoo's Nest, written by Dale Wasserman, is a supreme example of theater's potential to meaningfully affect an audience-and its success has everything to do with Cohen's cast.

The allegorical play-turned-therapy-session is set, as it is in the 1975 Milos Forman film starring Jack Nicholson, in the Oregon State Psychiatric Hospital. But through set design (by Jesse Groth Olson and Cohen) and Cohen's directorial vision, the audience becomes complicit in the action and in its social criticism. We become fellow mental patients, and it's difficult to tell if that wild laughter comes from the madmen onstage-or us.

It's the solid ensemble performance that makes this powerful audience-as-player effect possible. Jay Michael Fraley's R.P. McMurphy has more swagger than Nicholson's, and Brandon Kasper's Billy Bibbit espouses all the naiveté, shame and fear you would expect. Kristin Elliot's performance of the staunch Nurse Ratched toes the line between egomaniac and maternal caretaker so well that a frontal lobotomy almost sounds like a good idea.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest at Rude Guerrilla Theatre Co., 200 N. Broadway, Santa Ana, (714) 547-4688. Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2:30 p.m. Through Jan. 29. $10-$20.

Friday, January 20, 2006
Theater: 'One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest'
Review: Rude Guerrilla and Fleabitten plunge us into the midst of the 1963 drama.

Special to the Register

Ever since 1963, when Dale Wasserman adapted Ken Kesey's bestselling 1962 novel "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" for the stage, the play has become a staple of college and community theater productions that, typically, are tightly controlled, heavy-handed and plodding - entirely wrong for Kesey's story about the need to question and, more critically, to challenge authority.

Rude Guerrilla Theater Company's co-production with Fleabitten Productions applies a much-needed shock treatment to this approach, recognizing that Big Nurse has no desire to do what's best for the patients of the Oregon State Psychiatric Hospital, only what will help her retain an iron grip over her charges. Director Gregory Cohen and company realize that simply reorienting the audience toward the play's meaning isn't enough, so they've mounted an environmental version of the drama.

Rude G's black-box venue is transformed into the day room of the psychiatric ward, with walls and floor painted a sickly off-white, glaring lights and patients roaming free, loosely guarded by orderlies and nurses. Audience members are treated as newly admitted patients. There are no tickets, and the program is an "admittance packet" for new admits (us).

If all of this is meant to be unnerving and disturbing, it's a good start. The problem is that most of us are so familiar with the novel, later film version and countless stage productions that it would take far heavier jolts to move us. Cohen has a solid start, but one gets the feeling he pulled his punches so as not to wig anyone out too badly. This production has the potential to jar viewers out of their comfort zones and make them contemplate the pitfalls of meekly submitting to those in positions of power.

For some play-goers, it may do just that. Cohen and company don't shy away from the material's raw edges, adding liberal (and much-needed) doses of profanity, graphic violence and nudity. It's true that Kesey's allegorical story overdoes the Catholic symbolism, casting McMurphy as the rebellious nonconformist who rouses the rabble to defy Nurse Ratched's iron-fisted authority - yet, their clashes are far more personal, as each keeps raising the stakes on the other until the ultimate showdown.

Jay Michael Fraley's McMurphy is the self-declared new sheriff in town, just itching to take on Nurse Ratched. With his rural drawl, wool cap, sideburns and long, scruffy curls, Fraley brings a sizzling vitality to the role. His McMurphy is the lusty, rowdy alpha male at first amused by the stasis of his fellow patients, then enraged by it and, later, more self-protective, though no less defiant. It's another in a long line of memorable Rude G. characterizations by Fraley.

Kristin Elliott's Ratched is a formal, punctilious, judgmental drill sergeant in a starched white uniform. The role requires an element of sadism missing from Elliott's portrayal. Big Nurse should be as hateful to the audience as she is to the patients. Here, she's hidebound, following rules and regulations, yet deriving little pleasure from riding roughshod over the weak. Hence, the inexorable explosion of violence between she and McMurphy is less than titanic.

Owing to Cohen's casting and direction, the long-term patients, divided into "acutes" and "chronics," are thoroughly convincing, beginning with David Cramer's Harding, the most outwardly normal of the bunch. Harding's emasculation by his wife is continued by Big Nurse, and Cramer encapsulates the man's shame and frustration over his impotence. In the closing scene, he intimates that Harding and the other timid rabbits have found their courage.

Tui Scanlan paints "Chief" Bromden, the towering, cowering Indian, as a gentle soul whose poetic thoughts are heard in muffled, too-soft voiceovers. His bond with McMurphy is genuinely warm. The stuttering Billy Bibbit is racked with shame and guilt, but Brandon Kasper doesn't mine deeply enough into the young man's frailty and vulnerability. With relatively few lines, Jara Jones, Bobby D. Lux and Gilbert Martinez burrow into their roles as "presumably curable" mental patients. Mike McCaa's bearded Dr. Spivey is a soft-spoken, decent man who cedes power to Big Nurse. The facility's staff offer robotic blank stares, balanced by the chaos of Michelle Trachtenberg and Keena Zaide as McMurphy's free-spirited, visiting girlfriends.

Cohen and Jesse Groth Olson succeed in transforming Rude G.'s black box into something much like a coldly clinical medical facility. Ron Wyand's sound design enhances the effect, bombarding us with deliberately "soothing" early '60s Muzak. Despite any nagging setbacks, this is a "Cuckoo's Nest" well worthy of note

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest
January 20, 2006
By Eric Marchese

If any drama could use the Rude Guerrilla shock treatment, it's Dale Wasserman's 1963 stage version of Ken Kesey's wildly popular and allegorical 1962 novel about the power of nonconformity to defy iron-fisted authority. With sickly green walls, glaring lights, and a steady stream of deliberately "soothing" early '60s Muzak, Rude Guerrilla's black box becomes the day room of the Oregon State Psychiatric Hospital. Audience members are new admits, while our fellow patients wander about.

By thrusting us into the chaotic ward, director and Fleabitten co-founder Gregory Cohen means to intensify the story's meaning and, possibly, to rattle us. The efficacy of this approach depends upon your familiarity with the material. Those new to the play-even those who've read the source novel--will likely find this more reality--based take on the material disturbing. Cohen and his brave cast don't shy away from the raw edges of the script, with liberal doses of profanity, graphic violence, and nudity.

Cohen sets the stage with rough-mannered aides sporting blank stares, robotic nurses and technicians, and the raft of "acute" patients headed by Harding (David Cramer), frustrated to tears with the below-the-belt tactics of the bullying Nurse Ratched, the stuttering, vulnerable Billy Bibbit (Brandon Kasper), and the towering, cowering "Chief" Bromden (Tui Scanlan), with whom McMurphy forms a genuinely warm bond.

The ward is a corpse, and Jay Michael Fraley's McMurphy brings sizzling vitality to it. With his long scruffy curls, sideburns, wool cap, and rural drawl, he's an oasis in this bleak desert, a lusty, rowdy alpha male and self-declared new sheriff in town just itching to take on Nurse Ratched. The inevitable showdown and explosion of violence between the two characters is less than titanic, owing mainly to Kristin Elliott's Ratched. Elliott is formal, punctilious, and judgmental, a prissy drill sergeant in a starched white uniform. What's missing is an element of sadism: If Big Nurse only blindly follows rules and derives no cruel pleasure from riding roughshod over the weak, how can we despise her?

Despite this defect, and though Kesey's story overdoes the Catholic symbolism, it's worth your time to get yourself committed to this ward.

Presented by Rude Guerrilla Theater Company and Fleabitten Productions at the Empire Theater, 200 N. Broadway, Santa Ana. Fri.-Sat. 8 p.m. Sun. 2:30 p.m. (Also Thu. 8 p.m. Jan. 19 & 26.) Jan. 13-29. (714) 547-4688.