One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest Fifty Foot Penguin Theater
"Oh, for heaven's sake," Dale Harding sighs, "this place is a madhouse!" And so it is. Sterile white walls and steel grates demarcate the day room of the Institution in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, adapted from Ken Kesey's novel for the stage by Dale Wasserman in 1963, and produced for your holiday enjoyment by Fifty Foot Penguin Theater. Seven inmates putter around this period loony-bin in crew cuts and hiked-up socks, sporadically emitting inappropriate giggles. Billy Bibbit (Dave Pust) is a virginal, suicidal stutterer with some serious mother issues; Chief Bromden (Raine Hokan) stands catatonic as the hospital aides sneer, "Redskin"; and Harding (Robert-Bruce Brake) effetely expounds on his psychic impotence. They play a hand of cards, try to keep the schizophrenic from dealing to players who aren't there, and pause to write down the private comments of other ward members in the log book to read aloud later in group therapy--for their own good.
Welcome to the "therapeutic community" of this cuckoo's nest. In name, the befuddled Dr. Spivey (Erik Steen), with his ruffled hair and wrinkled tie, presides over this group. In practice, the "benevolent" Nurse Ratched (Jodi Kellogg) is firmly in charge. Emphasis on "firmly." The smiling, iron-gazed nurse reads the notes her patients have entered in the log book: "Mr. Harding has been heard to say that he may give his wife reason to seek sexual attention elsewhere...Dale, would it be accurate to say that she finds you sexually inadequate?"
Truly, the malevolence in her calm demeanor would emasculate anyone. As Harding explains, "The world belongs to the strong," and in this place, no one has the power to stand up against injustice. Act up, and Ratched can switch you to "disturbed" status or suggest a little electroshock therapy. Or perhaps a lobotomy is in order?
Enter into the mix R.P. McMurphy--now better known as the Jack Nicholson role. Transferred from the work farm after a few violent episodes, McMurphy (Alex Cole) saunters, swaggers, and boasts, immediately making a run for ward cool kid. It's not much of a competition; the knock-kneed inmates bend to Ratched's will, because as McMurphy observes, the nurse is aiming her queries "right square at the family jewels."
The currency of this play is potency: who has it, who does not. Testosterone drips from Cole's McMurphy, while the others are all remarkable for their lack. The institution of the mental hospital, as personified by Kellogg's Ratched, neuters its inmates, removing their agency and turning them into the pale, withering bunch we see onstage. "Come on, girls!" Cole's McMurphy pleads again and again as he storms back and forth. "Who has any guts?...Are we men or are we monkeys?" In this world, courage and machismo are directly related, and a lobotomy is "mental castration." Bluntly speaking, Cuckoo's Nest is about balls.
In a sense, it requires cojones the size of Christmas globes to produce this play in the first place. While Cuckoo's Nest is a brand name on par with Coke (or at least Pepsi), staging such an emotionally grueling story in the midst of the vapid holiday season is about as cocky as producing Ibsen in the summertime. This particular brand name will be forever defined in the popular consciousness by the 1975 Milos Forman movie which, let's face it, we've all seen. (There's a good reason this script hasn't been professionally produced here in recent memory.)
Balls a-ready, Fifty Foot Penguin Theater, the most promising new company to emerge this year, has assembled one of the strongest casts to appear onstage of late. From predictably top-notch performances by talented indie actors Kellogg and Cole to bit parts turned into juicy cameos by Dave Silvester and Laura Depta, the flightless waterfowl thumb their beaks at Milos Forman, Jack Nicholson, and all their precious Oscars.
Which is to say that they fearlessly lay claim to this story as if they had discovered it. And in the process, they tap into the purest sentiment of Kesey's parable, an all-American adage that translates to any medium: Live free or die.
One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest plays at the Cedar Riverside People's Center through December 20; 871-6034.