Wednesday, January 14, 2009

*One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest* review

Stick It to the Witch

a review of *Cuckoo’s Nest* (at Spokane Civic Theatre through Jan. 25)

Laughing at a freak show: That’s the response that the opening night audience gave to the Civic’s production of *One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.* One by one, the cuckoos filed onto the play’s insane asylum set with their hallucinations and facial tics and various manias, their sexual hang-ups, their hopeless catatonia.
And the opening-night audience — perhaps expecting a sit com, perhaps just nervously egging on their friends up there onstage — kept laughing at every little defect. Mental illness: Such a laugh riot!
Because it’s technically proficient, well-directed and (mostly) well-acted — and because it revives an American classic in a thoughtful and relevant way — Yvonne A.K. Johnson’s production (on the Civic’s Main Stage through Jan. 25) deserves a better response from its listeners.

For one thing, they’re witnessing a performance from the central character that’s powerful, energetic and wide-ranging. As R.P. McMurphy, the rootin’-tootin’ catalyst who invades this morgue-like nuthouse with a wallop of energy, George Green keeps the frenzy firing at high levels.
Johnson has directed Green’s first face-off with Nurse Ratched (Chasity Kohlman) so that it flips from a struggle of wills into something sexual. When showing off his rock climber’s physique, his come-on is half sexual, half playful — boyish and dangerous, all at the same time. And McMurphy is nothin’ but a handful of trouble, of course. But when Green confronts a momentary failure and makes the transition from laughter to weeping — entirely non-verbally — it can take your breath away.
Too often, Green relies on a tongue-waggling, look-at-me-being-frisky attitude. But the range of his performance — and the sadness over McMurphy’s defeat — outweigh such carping. If Jack Nicholson was growly mutt with an insane glint in his eye, Green is a Jack Russell terrier who longs for freedom on the other side of the fence — and just might chomp on your leg to get there. He’s like a force of nature. Green’s performance is a rounded and accomplished star turn.

His nemesis is a lot less showy. Kohlman captures Nurse Ratched’s ice-queen demeanor, her starched propriety. She’s a dominatrix wrapped inside a prude: She wants to be physically sadistic but contents herself — restrains herself — to merely psychological control. Kohlman could afford to make Nurse Rat-shit’s sadistic glee more evident, especially in the way she domineers over poor little intimidated-and-stuttering Billy Bibbit (Paul Villabrille, a sad sack but trying to change). But she’s masterful at letting Ratched’s vulnerability show, in stages, somewhere behind the eyes or in the way her starched uniform sags just a bit. (In the basketball scene, putting the ball behind her back was an inspired choice: “I can play this game even better than you, boys,” she seems to suggest.)
As Harding, the leader of the wacked-out inmates, Thomas Heppler shines, showing off with his hands and his vocabulary (but ineffectually). In one sequence, Heppler makes the transition from trying to laugh off his sexual neurosis to angrily denouncing the woman who worsened it. (The audience simply laughed. But the pain was real.)

In his most recent stage adaptation, Dale Wasserman substitutes monologues for Chief Bromden’s narration of Ken Kesey’s novel. In the monologues, the Chief’s connection to nature and his dislike of machines are emphasized both by David Baker’s lighting design and by Charles Mix’s sound effects. As the Chief, however, William R. Lund begins his initial monologues too melodramatically, leaving himself nowhere to go. Physically — lumbering across the stage with his head down and crazy-hair obscuring his face — Lund is just right. The contrast between mute Chief and angry Chief is stark and effective. But when you’re screaming defiance at the Combine and pleading with Papa at high decibels from the start, there’s not much room for ratcheting up the emotions later on.
In a somewhat similar way, in the opening scene, Johnson’s asylum patients are trying too hard to establish their quirkiness, their oddball mannerisms. Everything’s played too much for comedy, as if issuing an invitation to laugh at the freaks; everyone’s too intent on “acting.” But after this initial stumble, the ensemble melds and glows.

*Cuckoo’s Nest,* a serious play that blends tragedy and hopefulness, nevertheless has its humorous moments. But they’re subtle and earned. Smiling because a rabble-rouser like McMurphy has partly succeeded in inspiring some feeble sheep to stand up and fight for their own rights is one thing; laughing at the oddities of the mentally ill is quite another.
*Cuckoo’s Nest,* seen aright, can be transformative — not just in getting us not to laugh at neurotics, but in getting us to change our own wills. If McMurphy — who’s out only for a good time and No. 1 — can sacrifice himself for the sake of a few downtrodden others, then maybe the rest of us can stand up to bullies and incompetent politicians, too. The Civic’s production goes a long way toward making us feel that kind of transformation right in the gut. It’s a visceral and effective show.


  1. McMurphy's weeping took my breath away as well, but for a very different reason. I realized that only in an age where the sheeple are inundated with hormone-laden meat and dairy, and shock/sensitivity programming through mindless television could this scene go over with a bang. McMurphy is a brawler and a fighter, not a weeper.
    Any defeat is met with anger and defiance, not with displays of teary eyed weakness. No electro-shock lobotomy was needed-he loses the battle right then and there. Did anyone actually read the book by Ken Kesey, or has everyone chased down their tofu with a big mug of Jim Jones Special Kool-Aid?

  2. i see you didn't publish the comment earlier about the weeping mcmurphy.
    it looks as though you fully support the feminization and emasculation of the american anti-authority hero.
    i guess it's o.k. to be a rebel as long as you can cry.
    i guess it's o.k. to dump comments if they point out the weaknesses of the play and the review.
    oh yeah...almost's spokane.
    whatever should be up is down, and vice versa.

  3. Actually, between 8 pm last night and 7 am this morning, I had other things to do than respond to blog comments.
    I asked George Green about this moment: Had McMurphy experienced other defeats? Sure, but not quite like this, he said. McMurphy, at that point, really wanted to demonstrate to the inmates the power of trying. He wanted to embody FOR THEM the value of taking on something seemingly impossible, and not backing down, and then succeeding. But he didn't succeed, not this time.

    It's a powerful, non-verbal moment: Green amazingly pulls off an emotional switcheroo entirely non-verbally, entirely with his back to the audience.

    Rebels should be exclusively macho and never display any traditionally regarded "feminine" characteristics at all, ever? That's needless narrowing of the breadth of human character. The whole point about McMurphy, in my view, is that he makes the transition from self-centered, in-it-for-kicks rabble-rousing to genuine concern for others. That takes guts and compassion, both. In sexist tradition, guttiness is masculine and compassion is feminine.
    Wrong. The most rounded people have both. There's much to admire in McMurphy's breadth of character, and maybe even more to admire in Green's performance of the role.
    So, thanks for your comment, but I respectfully disagree.

  4. I loved your use of "sheeple," though.
    And I only got one-third of the way through Kesey's book before I had to write. I did read Wasserman's script.
    Johnson forbade her cast from watching the 1975 movie; now I want to go back to that as well.
    Actors frequently claim, "Oh, the play's really different from the book/movie," but in this case, I think that's true.

  5. If you READ the script version and this is a PLAY not the book, the text calls for this moment to be in tears. So perhaps the posted should do MORE research other than recalling a novel that was a masterpiece no doubt but dated...

    Green is amazing in this role. The layers that I saw in him were more than I have seen in any McMurphy on stage or film.

    This moment is about his loss not his defeat of being able to lift the box- he proves time and time again during the play that he is full of bravado - he is plenty forceful - it is ONE moment that he proves he is human... this play is about humanity.

    I give Green my vote for best performance of the year thus far!

  6. I agree i hated the moment.It was all a little overwrought.

  7. I agree i hated the moment.It was all a little overwrought.

  8. You can't be serious when u say Mr Green's performance was better than Jack's ,c'mon now let's not get carried away.

  9. poster at 11:39 am...
    why do i need to research...?and "DATED"? i believe your grey matter has become "dated". i'm probably one of the only people in this town full of Hanford Nuclear Plant Green Radium breathing , lead/arsenic/water drinking obese mouth breathers that actually read the book.
    typically, you missed the point. i wasn't arguing wether the PLAY script had girlie sobbing, i just said it was NOT R.P. McMurphy , and i thought that reacting to the whole scenario like it was the most wonderful moment since Mister Rodgers stopped assassinating people for the military and showed kids how a choo choo train works was just a wee bit over the top.
    so go eat some more yellow no. 5 injected cheetos and go fall asleep in front of some Oxygen Network rerun.

  10. Green is different from Jack. Gang, the play is completely different from the film and the book that most of you us are thinking about. Green does an excellent interpretation of this role - excellent. I have seen this done about 4 times and he is by far the best- now as far as better than Jack - I wonder if Jack could play it the way Green plays it ON STAGE with out breaks and camera angle... the magic of film (take after take to get it right). What is problematic about all this is that he is getting compared to Jack and he shouldn't. Different AUTHOR - different MEDIUM. Cut the guy some slack, he has enormous talent. Keep the comments clean and positive gang and have a great day!

  11. I think Mr. Green's performance was strong however in response to the one reply that said because the script made note that he should cry does not mean that has to be his choice.Stage directions are suggestions and crying can be conveyed in many different ways.If this is the competition piece it might be a good idea to take a second look at your choices .Again it was a strong show with many fine performances but I would not just settle.You have time to smooth out the rough edges.

  12. He is RP... just not the RP YOU wanted him to be. Respect your love of the book. I agree with the other poster though - It is dated. Just the language/terminology/slang is enough to make you go... what the hell? Wasserman updated the script a few times throughout his life to adapt it to the society that we live in today. Thus instead of a chomping egomaniac... RP is what you don't want him to be now - but that's ok. For a play... one of the best I've seen. Versus the book - the script has some flaws but overall pretty tight.

    I advise folks not to see the film or read the book. See the play first THEN read the book and see the film - thier thought process might be reversed...

  13. The play is dated if you think the play is about RP Mc., lobotomy and the staff cruelty of mental institutions. If you think the theme of the play is about women emasculating men (Chief's dad, RP, Billy, other characters) it may not be so dated. Given that as a theme, crying at that moment in the play would be a poor direction to go. The crying moment seemed forced and didn't work for me.

  14. what is the difference between "dated" and "reflecting or being a snapshot of a particular period in time"? Maybe some aspects of the book/movie/play are "dated", but there are an awfully lot of issues that we are still struggling with today - or SHOULD BE.

  15. Okay, enough. While I, too, disagree with the choice for McMurphy to cry at that moment, it is a perfectly valid choice for the actor and director to make. That is part of the creative process.

  16. i thought there were odd choices throughout.

  17. First, a play csn most certianly be dated while still reflecting the mores of it's time. Humor ages (when was the last time you laughed at one of Shakespeare's lines?), rhythems change (Have a look at how slow the original movie of The Producers seems now), some dramatic monets now seem melodramatic. The crying scene, for my taste, felt melodramatic to me and an audience member behind me actully snickered.

    2nd, why is it Civic Theatre reviews are the only ones that get scads of comments? Are the folks who perform these really that full of themselves that they can't believe someone would say ANYTHING negitive about them? Come on, folks, show a little grace.

  18. I don't understand all the massive praise nor the massive negitive comments. They did an okay job. George was good in some parts and okay in others. Tom turned in a wonderful performance. It was not the third coming nor the worse show ever. It held its own.

  19. For the record - and I wont leave my name cause I am a puny weak coward.... you guessed it... to the person that made the rude comment amount civic actors needing some grace. I happen to be in the play and spoke to George about this blog a few days ago. He told me he rarely reads it. He read this thread once - snickered and then said folks are "entitled to think what ever they want" then went on his business. He is actually one of the most giving and gracious actors I have worked with so please shut up. That was just plain rude and stupid.

  20. Now I see why Bobo rarely gives Civic a rave or close to a rave - the ego of the "pro's" can't handle it and they start bashing the talent. Kudos Bobo - you were dead on with this review. You saw through the chaos.

    Stunning performances by nearly all on stage. Including the George Green.

    Oh and the theme is NOT about women chopping off guys nuts. Whoever wrote that should dig a little deeper into the theme - women REPRESENT the oppression in this play but thats just the surface. Thats called SYMBOLISM - you learn it as freshmen in high school.

  21. As a sometime viewer of this blog, it is actually nice to see, for a change, a discussion on a director's or an actor's choice of a character instead of personal attacks against people and general bitching.

    If you are going to talk about anyone's acting in this play being above par. Lets talk about Tom Heppler. He played Harding. What a performance. He owned the shit out of this role. He should get a freaking TONY!!!!!

    He totally owned the physical and mental aspects of someone who was really troubled. Not crazy, just really troubled.
    He made me cry.

  22. Wow!! Methinks the ladies doth protest too much.

  23. To:
    Anonymous January 21, 2009 3:06 PM:

    Apparently, you need to return to high school as a freshmen and take the course over again. I will prepare you for this endeavor with any number of Cuckoo Nest Theme links, but let's begin with: SparkNotes on One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest. SparkNotes is kind of like cheating on the test, but it provides you with the themes of this story. First and foremost theme is: "Women as Castrators". Here's the link:

  24. Tom is a great actor. The Saturday night I saw him he struggled badly, So, thus, the great conversation. If you saw the show one night you might feel differently than someone that saw the show on another night.

  25. I just thought the whole cast was great. The moments that George and Tom created together were especially nice. Chas and George had fun moments as did Paul with George. Nice group effort. I found myself interested in every way that McMurphy influenced a scene or role. Everyone did a wonderful job in this production making moments in each scene matter to the plot. Didn't some Russian director come up with a theory like that? I think I read that in one of my now dusty college theatre books.

  26. Great is generous. I felt like the entire cast did no homework with regard to their afflictions. I found them mostly inconsistent-exception being Tom Heppler. Secondly, I found the character of Ratchet to be very one-note. There is a lot of undiscovered potential there! I think the show is fine; however, if they expect to win any competitions, they have much work to do.

  27. EWU has an excellent communication disorders department.It might be a good idea foe Mr. Villebrille to hook up with one of the professers about the mechanics of stuttering.Years ago the head of the department was one of the foremost experts in stuttering and a stutterer himself.It would turn a solid performance into an exceptional one if he did the work.Not doing so might bite him at a competition.

  28. OK. I am keeping score...
    So far you folks have been able to bash the following...

    in GENERAL COMMENTS... the whole cast...

    C'mon! Surely you want to keep going! It is so entertaining watching this blog turn into a little bashfest after every show.

    Please someone say someting specific and horrible again. Something about Peirce or maybe O'Shaunessy! C'mon you know you want to - I can't wait to read it! If all else fails and you can't find something clever to bash about, simply revert back to Green - he's an easy target right?

  29. Here we go again. Here's Anonymous 11:58 attacking people for engaging in discourse about the contemporary relevence of older plays, inovative places for actors to research roles, and interesting, bold acting choices. Re-read the comments here, more good has been said about the production than bad. But some people just can not imagine anyone saying anything negitive about their work. I guess we all have to fall on our knees and worship every time someone appears on any stage (Or is it just at Civic?), moves without bumping into the furniture, and says many of the author's words in roughly the right order. Sad. No, no, you're right. This is the best production I'VE EVER SEEN, better than anything else in Spokane -- or really -- let's face it -- on Broadway or anywhere else! Good Lord! Get over your bad self.

  30. First off - I am not an actor nor would I ever attempt to do so - it is a skill that is far beyond my reach and thus my ridicule of your little sarcastic venue for rampaging theatre types. You really need to APPRECIATE THEM MORE - even if you happened to be the most talented one in Spokane (you obviously think you are). You should be more humble and compliment your peers rather than posting insane comments and bashing the talent that works so hard to entertain... bashing your peers is so cohesive. So I do not have to get over my self. Second - if you believe that more good has happened on this thread than bad, you are twisted. IF (for example) the person that wanted to give Villabrille the "excellent" advise on speech therapy, why would he/she assume Villabrille would even get the message on this blog? He/she simply wanted to criticize... as do you. NOT HELP... CRITICIZE. Helping would be to get in touch with Villabrille and get him the info. How do you know he did not talk to the guy at EWU? Who's to say to ANYONE in this (or any other cast for that matter) that they have "NOT DONE THIER RESEARCH"? You really think that is helping!!!!! Get over YOURSELF... I see you could not think of another cast comment to make so you decided to focus on a blog comment - while you are at it go punch a homeless person. THAT might make you feel good about yourself as well. Best wishes. Hope you get your own medicine when you get on stage.

  31. Ah yes, the incestuous Spokane theatre members that love to belittle one another. How I miss this city.

  32. I would like to see this show succeed at competition because it has all the makings to go the distance.I agree that the level of discourse can sink pretty low on this blog but I must say and with some surprise I might add, for the most part the critical feedback is constructive.Does that mean it is always correct well maybe yes maybe no.I don't think it's offensive for the most part and why not at least least investigate some of the issues raised.There is no question that this hard working cast and excellent director delivered a provocative and engaging performance.Many of these comments are simply saying don't settle take it to the next level and I have no doubt this cast will.I do take issue with the comment that because these are actors performing at the civic theatre they are not willing to do more work and introspection, that's just not fair.These are all hardworking actors from different backgrounds working on their craft at a theatre.Lets give them our support and I have no doubt they are already looking for new ways to validate and further explore their characters.All my best wishes to the cast and crew of "One Flew Over the Cookoo's Nest"!

  33. For the record.... all stuttering issues are different and Villabrille does a nice job of making his own issues, his own issues.

    No two stutterers have the same speech impediment.
    Some stutter under various stress, others have trouble with pronunciation, etc etc....