Oh, how we love our rebels — even if we know they’re doomed.
Somehow, that makes us love them even more.
Thanks to Metropolitan Ensemble Theatre, we can return to one of the most enduring themes of 20th century American literature: the eternal struggle of the individual to declare his humanity in opposition to the strictures of an oppressive society.
The MET’s intimate environment is giving theatergoers a chance to experience the genre up close and personal with “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” based on Ken Kesey’s classic novel. And as the epic antagonists — troublemaker Randle McMurphy and authoritarian Nurse Ratched — we have two of our most respected Kansas City actors, Scott Cordes and Jan Chapman.
Perhaps no author has articulated the rage-against-the-machine theme as famously as Kesey, whose book, published 50 years ago, was adapted for the stage by Dale Wasserman in 1963 and became an Oscar-winning film in 1975.
Its depiction of McMurphy, an authority-flaunting war veteran, and his conscious disruption of order in a psych ward ruled by a control-freak nurse, dovetailed perfectly with the 1960s youth rebellion and civil rights struggle. The book ultimately came to be seen as a statement on conscientious objectors and draft dodgers during the Vietnam War.
“He makes a lot of sense to me,” Cordes said. “You’ve got to fight the Man. You’ve got to question the Man. In this case, the woman. I just like the idea that he comes to this place that hasn’t heard laughter or singing, and he gives something to each one of these men. He helps them out. He gives something back to them that they had before but lost. The way this nurse treats these men, it just seems like she’s (castrating them), which doesn’t seem like a way to heal somebody.”
“Cuckoo’s Nest” reflected a thematic streak that ran through much of the fiction and movies of the ’60s and ’70s. Donn Pearce’s chain-gang novel “Cool Hand Luke,” which became a widely seen 1967 film starring Paul Newman, owed a debt to “Cuckoo’s Nest.” And both followed Edward Abbey’s 1956 novel, “The Brave Cowboy,” in which an anachronistic cowhand unsuccessfully confronts the mechanized modern world. Abbey’s book was the basis of “Lonely Are the Brave,” a classic 1962 film produced by and starring Kirk Douglas.
Indeed, Douglas played Randle McMurphy when the stage version of “Cuckoo’s Nest” opened on Broadway, but he could never get a film made. Eventually his son Michael produced the movie version but cast Jack Nicholson instead.
Nicholson’s work then was dominated by characters who were philosophical rebels — the doomed country lawyer in the iconic “Easy Rider,” a concert pianist working in the California oil fields to escape his past in “Five Easy Pieces,” a Navy lifer reluctantly escorting a kid to the brig in “The Last Detail” and a private eye confronting raw power in “Chinatown.”
But you could argue that “Cuckoo’s Nest” remains the most powerful distillation of the notion that to fight the good fight — to confront monolithic authority — rebels do so at their own risk.
“When those in power are questioned, they come down on those who question and speak up,” Chapman said. “It’s a little microcosm of what’s going on in the real world, and I don’t think things have changed a lot.”
The talented Chapman, a MET company member, and Cordes, who has chalked up a series of memorable performances in MET productions, were cast even before a director was in place. Karen Paisley, the MET’s artistic director, said she often looks at actors’ schedules well in advance as she seeks windows of opportunity for them to do shows.
“I had thought of it for Scott a long time ago,” Paisley said. “I was thinking that it would be fun to do. And of course we started planning it probably a year ago, so in some ways it was a vehicle for Scott. But we always try to pick really extraordinary plays that are going to create extraordinary experiences for our audiences and pick material for actors to do what they were meant to do.”
Paisley asked William Christie, the American Heartland Theatre’s resident stage manager, to direct the piece after she saw his staging of the quirky “39 Steps” for the Heartland.
“I appreciated the creativity he brought to ‘The 39 Steps,’ ” she said. “And it was a semi-minimalist approach, which is our normal mode of operation.”
Christie’s first task was to fill the rest of the show’s 16 roles through open auditions. That’s a huge cast by current standards, and the group includes a number of MET regulars — Alan Tilson, Priest Hughes, Sam Wright, Chris Roady and Ari Bavel, who plays Chief Bromden, the novel’s narrator. Other notable cast members include veteran theater artist Tyler Miller as Ruckley and Dan Hillaker as Billy Bibbitt.
Christie said he had no problem signing on after Cordes and Chapman were part of the project. Each actor is ideally suited to the part.
“They are going after it so effortlessly,” Christie said. “I hope they take that as a compliment. Jan is a broad physical actress in many of the things she’s asked to do, and she’s finding this a lovely challenge. The power in the character is understated. It’s in the way everyone reacts to what she says and does, so Jan doesn’t need to act that out. In this case, less is a lot more.
“And Scott is just Scott. Scott’s a physical actor and very broad in many of the things he’s asked to do, but there’s also a lot of charm in the character as he gets to know and develop affection for these (other) characters.”
Chapman said she read the novel twice. She had seen the film “ages ago” and intentionally didn’t watch it again after she was cast. She didn’t want Louise Fletcher’s performance to influence her. The second time she read the book, she wrote down a list of every phrase, every adjective, that she thought defined Nurse Ratched.
“I think she’s terribly misunderstood,” Chapman said with a chuckle. “I think Ratched is in some ways as ill as some of the patients she’s in charge of. She’s found the perfect niche for her particular malady. She is the world’s biggest control freak ever. And if things aren’t exactly as she thinks they should be, she pulls out the claws. As long as everyone’s doing what they’re supposed to be doing she’s absolutely lovely.”
The MET production will be performed on a three-quarter thrust stage with seating on three sides. The arrangement, Christie said, will allow some viewers to feel as if they’re in the mental ward with the patients.
“Actors are going to be sitting two or three inches from the front row,” he said. “The front-row people are going to be in the day room. We’re gonna do everything but sit next to them.”