A Morality Play for Madmen

In the sterile ward (nicely designed by Josh Mullady, Dan Whitehouse, and Bob & Denise Putman) of a mental institution, a war is waged for the souls of the patients.  On the side of the angels is Randle P. McMurphy, an inmate who likes to fight and f—k.  The demons’ champion is the cold-blooded Nurse Ratched who rules the ward with an iron fist.  Their intense battle of wills makes up the story of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Dale Wasserman based off of a novel by Ken Kesey and currently playing at the Chanticleer Community Theatre.

Director Ron Hines has done a nice job mining the script for both comedic and dramatic moments and has cast a unique blend of characters for this show.  Aside from the two leads, the success of this show depends on casting a strong ensemble of patients to bring the necessary flavor to the piece and Hines’ casting was right on the money as each patient breathed a beautiful bit of life into the show.

Particular notice needs to be given to Joseph Edie, making his stage debut, who takes the nearly catatonic role of Ruckley and runs with it for all its worth, Jim Farmer who brings a twitchy awesomeness to the role of the hallucinating Martini, Gary Lee Jungers who is a riot in the role of the lazy drunkard, Aide Turkel, David Sindelar as the all bark, no bite Charles Cheswick III who gravitates towards the strongest person in the room, Randy Vest who brings a touching intelligence to the role of Dale Harding, a repressed homosexual who is also president of the patients’ union, Mark Reid as the timid, but fair, Dr. Spivey, and Meganne Rebecca Storm who brings a vampy sweetness to the role of Candy Starr, a hooker friend of McMurphy.

Craig Bond commands the stage in the role of Randle P. McMurphy.  Bond does a fantastic job portraying McMurphy as a happy-go-lucky troublemaker who has submitted to being committed in order to avoid a hard prison sentence for statutory rape.  From the moment, Bond appears on stage, the audience knows things are going to be shaken up.  Bond’s McMurphy gleefully warbles songs, gambles with the patients on just about anything, plays cards with a deck pictured with naked women, hassles a God fearing nurse, and flouts authority at every available opportunity.

But McMurphy is also an antiheroic angel who brings the gift of hope to the downtrodden patients of the ward.  His antics and zest for life slowly remind the patients of what it means to be strong, especially as McMurphy is bound and determined to break the spirit of the iron willed Nurse Ratched who keeps the patients under her thumb with her rules and “therapy”.  When McMurphy learns that his stay could be indefinite as he is committed, it raises the stakes of his private war with Nurse Ratched to the ultimate level.

Debbie Bertelsen plays the role of Nurse Ratched, the domineering ruler of the ward.  In a battle between good and evil, the demon must be just as powerful as the angel in order to have an exciting conflict.  Unfortunately, Ms Bertelsen’s performance falls short of that standard and I fear she is miscast in the role.  The character of Nurse Ratched is truly a force to be reckoned with.  She is icy cold, stern, unyielding, and has a presence that should make your blood freeze in its veins.  Nurse Ratched is also the worst kind of evil as she is evil who honestly believes she is working on the side of good.  It is truly a difficult role to play.

Ms Bertelsen lacked the terrifying presence needed for the character and her fluid body language and line interpretation did not convey the sense that she was the “god” of this little world.  At points, she almost seemed like she was enjoying the cruelty of the character and that rang a little false as Ratched is genuinely committed to rehabilitating people.  It’s her execution of that commitment and unflinching belief that her way is the right way that makes her a bad person.

Brandyn Burget does a serviceable job as Bily Bibbit in his community theatre debut.  As the childlike, stuttering Bibbit, Burget has some very beautiful body language as he tries to hide within himself and has nice reactions in scenes where he does not speak much.  His line interpretation needs some more dramatic oomph at certain key moments, especially towards the end, but a very worthy effort overall.

Frank Insolera, Jr. gives a stoically mesmerizing performance as Chief Bromden.  Ostensibly, the narrator of the play, Insolera is an incredible physical presence as the towering Native American.  Pretending to be deaf and dumb, Insolera’s Chief Bromden silently observes the goings-on of the ward while pushing a broom around the stage.  His blank facial expressions and minimal movement are spot-on for the withdrawn Chief who slowly opens up to the renegade McMurphy.

Insolera imbues Chief with a wonderful weakness as he believes he is not strong enough to exist in the outside world.  That gradually changes as the ward realizes he can be reached and he finds an amazing strength in the aftermath of the final battle between Ratched and McMurphy.

In the end, this story is an interesting twist on the morality play.  It is at turns funny, tragic, happy, sad, but always hopeful.  It will give you a lot to think about and already seems to be shaping into a hit for the Chanticleer.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest continues at the Chanticleer Community Theatre through March 15.  Showtimes are Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30pm and Sundays at 2pm.  Tickets cost $20 for adults, $16 for senior citizens, and $10 for students.  Contact the theatre at 712-323-9955 for tickets.  The Chanticleer Community Theatre is located at 830 Franklin Ave in Council Bluffs, Iowa.

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