The stage version of Ken Kesey’s “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” like the novel, celebrates the chaos of freedom, glorifying the individual in his eternal battle against dehumanizing bureaucracies.
So it’s not surprising that the loose-jointed production at the Metropolitan Ensemble Theatre is a bit chaotic, sometimes by design, sometimes not. But the artists involved find a way to turn any deficiencies into strengths. Director William Christie guides an able cast through this mythic confrontation between the rebel Randle McMurphy and the dictatorial psychiatric Nurse Ratched and ultimately delivers a powerful piece of theater.
Scott Cordes, one might argue, was born to play McMurphy, a decorated Army veteran who nonetheless received a dishonorable discharge. The actor’s persona dovetails beautifully with the character. As a result, McMurphy’s larger-than-life defiance never seems forced. He is what he is – a hard-drinking, brawling, gambling, hooker-loving misfit who can only be stopped by a sledge hammer.
After committing himself to a mental hospital to finish up a jail term (he reasons that the hospital will be a welcome relief from the drudgery of prison work details), he meets his formidable nemesis. Jan Chapman, whose tall stature, chiseled cheekbones and ice-queen smile make her the ideal physical embodiment of Ratched, plays the part with tightly-controlled reserve in counterpoint to Cordes’s loose-cannon antics. In the penultimate scene, her reserve is finally stripped away, and we see the unbridled sadist within as she and McMurphy grapple in a death struggle.
Playwright Dale Wasserman, whose adaptation was first staged just four years after the novel’s publication in 1959, sets the action entirely in the day room of a psychiatric hospital. The novel is told through the internal, surrealistic, perceptions of Chief Bromden (played by Ari Bavel), a mountainous and presumably deaf-mute Native American, and Wasserman tries to capture some of that imagery with dreamlike monologues. In this production, those are recorded voice-overs that might have worked better if Bavel had simply been allowed to speak them onstage. But for the most part Wasserman settles for a straight narrative, which gives the play a much more prosaic feel. Even so, it’s still a story that sucks you in.
This play is of its time and shows its age. A mile-wide streak of misogyny runs through the piece, as reflected by the range of female characters – the gorgon Ratched, her dim-bulb assistant and a couple of hookers. Look a little deeper and you could argue that it simply reflects a society in which women, as an oppressed gender, grab power where they can find it and use it to even the score. And Nurse Ratched certainly does that.
The supporting cast brings a lot to the table. Tyler Miller, Samn Wright, Matt Leonard, Chris Roady and Alan Tilson add texture with detailed performances as inmates; Tim Ahlenius is effective as an ineffectual doctor; Kenzie West delivers a crisp comic performance as Nurse Flinn; Kristin Leathers and Donette Coleman are agreeably over the top as ladies of the evening; Priest Hughes is amusingly convincing as an easily-bribed security guard; and Donovan Kidd and Kyle Dyck form a permanent ominous presence as a couple of seemingly clean-cut but sadistic orderlies. Particularly powerful is Dan Hillaker as the fragile Billy Bibbitt.