Monday, September 24, 2018

Cuckoo for Chapel Street's Latest Production

By Carol Van Zoeren

In the program’s Director’s Message, Brian Touchette states his objective is to immerse the audience in the world of the play. He begins even before the play starts by cleverly presenting the curtain speech as a letter from Nurse Ratched, welcoming the audience to participate in this “group therapy session” while also reminding us to turn off our cell phones. 

The cast of Chapel Street's Cuckoo's Nest.
Photos by Peter Kuo.
He furthers this with a gorgeous set that evokes a decaying industrial setting, rusty, dirty and dented, with incongruously cheery Christmas lights in the “Control Room”. He pairs Chief Bromden’s monologues with mechanical imagery and sound that augment the Chief’s terror of the destructive machines that consumed his family, his tribe and his sense of self.

Touchette more than succeeded in immersing me in the world of the play. Yes, I was fully invested, but was also especially gratified that these elements highlighted many themes of the play that I might have otherwise missed.

For those unfamiliar with the play, or the 1975 movie starring Jack Nicholson and Louise Fletcher, a brief plot synopsis: Randall P. McMurphy is committed to a psychiatric ward after “a couple of hassles down at the Work Farm and the Court ruled that I’m a psychopath.” The ward is ruled by Nurse Ratched. A war for control ensues between McMurphy and Ratched, with both tragic and uplifting results. But this plot is merely a vehicle for deep examination of how institutions can destroy, how power can corrupt, and how one can both lose and win at the same time.

OK, enough of the English 101 essay. This is a community theater review, so let’s talk about the performances.

Scott F. Mason is a talented actor with whom I have shared the stage, and I was delighted to see him play McMurphy. Mason portrayed the bravado that has carried McMurphy through every hardship, and also well conveyed moments of doubt when he realizes the power of the forces aligned against him. My only quibble with the entire production is the choice for him to use a deeply gravelly voice throughout. This was distracting, at time made his lines difficult to understand, and generally detracted from the authenticity of the character.

As Nurse Ratched, Shelli Haynes embodied the iron fist beneath the velvet glove (thinking of the cheery Christmas lights in the Control Room). Ratched’s highest priority is control and power. Haynes expertly played Ratched’s repertoire of tools  sing-songy comfort, intimidation, emotional blackmail, flat-out baiting. In the context of Touchette’s design, I realized that Ratched intentionally sacrifices her most vulnerable patient so she can goad McMurphy into an attack that will secure her victory over him. Power corrupts. Yes, it was there all the time. But without the rusty set, I might have missed that.

As Chief Bromden, Arthur D. Paul broke my heart. As mentioned above, the video and sound accompaniment helped reveal the deeper meaning of his poetic monologues. So too did his demeanor  frightened and confused, yet hopeful. In the Act II scene between Chief and McMurphy, when Chief reveals that indeed he can hear and talk, it was simply beautiful to see genuine affection develop between these two flawed men. It set us up to accept Chief’s final act of kindness, not to let his friend live as a vegetable. And, again thanks to Touchette’s overall concept, It is not lost on me that Chief escapes after shorting out the power of the machine, thereby reclaiming his own strength.

In direct contrast how Ratched beats people down to service her need for total control, McMurphy is all about building people up. It is touching that Dale Harding (Alan Harbaugh) eventually finds the courage to convince Chief to leave.  McMurphy convinces the excruciatingly fearful Billy Bibbit (Stephen Ross Ashby) to embrace life, even though this leads to both of their downfalls.

The other patients  Scanlon, Cheswick, Martini (Josh Pelikan, Frank Newton, Andre Wilkins)  are clearly delineated with their own individual quirks, but also serve collectively as a kind of Greek chorus. This was notable in group therapy scenes when the three moved and reacted in sync, and most poignant when they try to convince themselves that the lobotomized McMurphy is just a mock-up, a dummy, and the real McMurphy escaped.

This all sounds like a very depressing evening. Indeed, that was what I expected. So I was pleasantly surprised at how funny the show is. The cast expertly plays up the comedy and was rewarded with raucous outbursts of laughter from the sold-out opening night audience. Coupled with the uplifting elements in otherwise dire circumstances, Chapel Street’s Cuckoo’s Nest offers a deeply satisfying exploration of the worst, and best, of humanity.


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