Going Cuckoo

Portland Players searches for liberation
April 2, 2008 11:56:17 AM
OUTSIDE THE ASYLUM: Bringing light to the starkness.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Dale Wasserman, adapted from the novel by Ken Kesey | Directed by Barbara Buck | Produced by The Portland Players, in South Portland | through April 6 | 207.799.7337
Through the asylum’s gothic windows, high and barred, shift impossibly vivid blues, yellows, and scarlets. That’s Outside — intense, mysterious, unpredictable, ever in flux. The rich but frightening beauty out there contrasts with the sterile, institutional off-white-and-aqua interior of the asylum, and with the regulated, passive men who live within it. But a new patient manages to smuggle in some of that sensuality and color, in Ken Kesey’s classic paean to liberation and non-conformity, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, directed by Barbara Buck for the Portland Players.

Before Randle McMurphy (Jaimie Schwartz) shows up in the ward (hoping to serve a jail sentence here, rather than at the work farm), its patients are resigned to their lives of stable, deadening subservience. The “Big Nurse,” Nurse Ratched (Cheryl Reynolds) keeps everybody submissive with a diet of fear, guilt, emasculation, and mechanized routine, and even her two beefy aides (Joe Swenson and Dan Clarke) live in terror of her. But as live-wire McMurphy works his electricity into ward life — with porno playing cards, secret gambling, and general rebellion against ward policy — Ratched starts to lose control over her carefully balanced empire.

As her nemesis, Schwartz certainly pulls out the stops. His robust, randy McMurphy is positively charged with swagger, sex, and a maniacal joie de vivre. It’s an energetic and energizing performance, if not entirely fresh — he often seems to be channeling Jack Nicholson, who gave the definitive performance of the role in Milos Forman’s 1975 film.

Schwartz in any case draws a striking and rousing contrast against the flaccid bunch of “acutes” (cogent, curable) and “chronics” (walkers, vegetables) McMurphy joins. The acutes include the leader of the inmates, Harding (John Alexander), smart but insecure, and intimidated by his beautiful young wife back home; the loveable, apron-tied young stutterer Billy Bibbit (an affecting turn by Marc Brann); “bomb”-builder Scanlon (Steve Dodge, with a hostility that he tempers nicely); Harpo Marx-ish Martini (Mike Best); and the dramatic neurotic Cheswick (Paul Bell). These actors have great rapport, and beautifully convey the intimacy — both the irritation and the affection — between the wardmates. They also do a fine job revealing the evolution of the ward, from apathy to agency, as McMurphy’s presence rubs off.

Another inmate, the half-Indian Chief Bromden (Chris Newcomb), has long been presumed to be deaf and dumb, capable only of pushing around a broom. But he has a rich, intuitive inner life, expressed through monologues apart from the group scenes, in which he critiques the modern culture of conformity of which their lives are a symptom. These monologues are an important counterpoint to the narrative, but director Buck mishandles them here. While Newcomb makes wise, tender work of the Chief’s arc in general, his monologues are rushed and insufficiently different in tone from the play’s main action. The Chief’s inner thoughts are lyrical, evoking nature on the one hand, and cogs and mechanical imagery on the other. Buck needs to slow this poetry down and give it its full measure, or else much of it — and thus vital elements of the play’s themes — sweeps by too quickly.

The woman who commandeers the ward’s cold dehumanization, Nurse Ratched, is crisp, proper, and utterly steely. She’s meant to be a formidable foil to McMurphy as he riles up the crazies. Reynolds gives this show’s Ratched a suitably icy composure, but her Big Nurse never quite feels an equal match to her challenger. Her small frame and high voice make a fine contrast to McMurphy, but she needs to better energize them with the will and power-hunger that drive this emasculating monster.

The scientific malice of Ratched’s methods are beautifully produced in the lighting, set, and costume design of this show (Buck, Dorothy Glendinning, and James Light). Especially scary is an electro-shock scene, staged against black curtains behind a scrim, lit with a stark, clinical, very ominous white spot.

And the design crew also rejoices in bright chaos that McMurphy brings to the ward. Particularly lovely is the friendly tropical sluttery of two chippies (Valerie Tarantino and the Phoenix’s own Deirdre Fulton) whom he sneaks in: Their candy-apple red, electric blue, and delicious purple little dresses are brilliant in the pale, bland ward. Despite its missteps, Portland Players celebrates the power of those hot hues with technical aplomb and discernable joy.

Megan Grumbling can be reached at .


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