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Eugene Weekly : Theater : 2.10.11

 

Keeping with Kesey

Cuckoos Nest restores novels vision

by Rick Levin

Nurse Ratched (Sabra Slade) crashes the party in One Flew Over The Cuckoos Nest

Mention One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest anywhere outside the Pacific Northwest, and the image youll spark in most folks mind is Jack Nicholson leering like a salty sailor beneath a navy blue stocking cap. Fair enough. As with his maniacally outsized role in The Shining, Nicholson tattoos himself all over director Milos Formans adaptation of Ken Keseys classic novel ã hooting, hollering, cajoling and otherwise cantering around with bulging eyes and gonads the size of bowling balls. Its a strong performance in a decent movie that paints its strident social commentary in broad, manipulative strokes. But its hardly what Kesey intended when he wrote the book.

Apparently what most upset Kesey, aside from financial issues, was the fact that Nicholsons bravura performance stole the focus away from big Chief Bromden, who narrates the novel. The current staging by LCCs Student Productions Association, based on Dale Wassermanns script, goes a long way in restoring Keseys original vision of a society that, in the words of LCC director Chris Pinto, sometimes blurs the line "between sanity and insanity.” Its a lovely production, vital and redemptive, which is all the more impressive for our deep familiarity with the story. The frenetic, furious pace of the film is replaced by a more measured and melancholy rhythm that leavens its tragic message with bittersweet humor and wry ambivalence.

The mood is set from the opening scene, which finds Chief Bromden (the excellent Kunu Dittmer) standing alone on stage, addressing his dead father. To the tone-deaf, the Chiefs meditations ã about the "combine” that controls the worlds outcasts with magnets and wires ã might sound like paranoid ravings, but they are in keeping with the traditions of Native American storytelling, which animates the wide world with spirit and intention. These soliloquies open nearly every scene, working to frame the story as a timeless fable open to endless interpretations and retellings.

Directed with economy and flair by Pinto, the production is propelled by strong performances all around. At the heart of Cuckoos Nest are three archetypical characters ã the spirited R.P. McMurphy, the dwarfed Chief Bromden and the uber-uptight Nurse Ratched, a "ball-buster from way back” ã and here each role is performed with uncommon sensitivity and nuance. As McMurphy, Johnny Rogers is less antagonistic than righteously empathetic, his actions fueled not by ego but humanity and a sense of injustice. Sabra Slades Nurse Ratched, with her pinched restraint and passive-aggressive condescension, BRING's to mind the psychosexual terror of Judith Anderson in Hitchcocks Rebecca. Dittmer gives a powerhouse performance as the Chief, a haunted, misunderstood man perfectly in tune with his surroundings. And a special nod should go to the superb Steven Coatsworth, who plays the aristocratic inmate Dale Harding.

One could argue that Keseys story is dated ã that we no longer scramble the brains of our undesirables with ice-pick lobotomies. Not so. Despite its particular setting, One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest, like The Great Gatsby or Mrs. Dalloway, has stood the test of time. We may have exchanged pre-frontals for Prozac and shock therapy for Celexa, but the grinding of individual gems into collective dust remains as rampant as ever. Whether you're flying from the east or from the west, dont miss this cuckoos nest. Its a jolt to the system.

One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest plays 8pm Thursday through Saturday, Feb. 10-12 & Feb. 18, with 2pm matinees Sunday, Feb. 13 & Feb. 19-20, at LCCs Blue Door Theatre, 4000 E. 30th Ave.; $10, $8 sen. & stu., tickets at www.lanecc.edu/tickets or 463-5761.