BWW Reviews: ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO'S NEST Soars to Complex Heights
The weather was gorgeous, the traffic was more "meh" than usual, and I was able to not only find a parking spot in Long Island City, but also successfully parallel park in said parking spot. Living in the suburbs of Long Island my entire life, this was a pretty big deal: leading up to my arrival at the Chain Theatre for Variations Theatre Group's production of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest by Dale Wasserman - based on the novel by Ken Kesey, which also inspired the five-time Academy Award-winning film.
"A mordant, wickedly subversive parable, set in a mental ward, the play chronicles the head-on collision between its hell-raising, life affirming hero R.P. McMurphy and the totalitarian rule of Nurse Ratched. But McMurphy's revolution against Nurse Ratched and everything she stands for quickly turns from sport to a fierce power struggle with shattering results."
The Chain Theatre's lobby, clad with One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest posters, was reminiscent of an art gallery in Chelsea: chic, white, sooooo Manhattan (but...Long Island City...I was #living). Upon entering the theater, settling music played over the loud speaker: the exact same music as the movie. There was a clever establishment of both near-space and far-space thanks to the placement of the old tables and rickety chairs on the worn tile floor.
The audience was soon greeted by blackout, and the introduction to just the first of its intense, accompanying visuals to the entrancing, contemplative soliloquies of Chief Bromden (Constantin Tripes). (I wish to not spoil any of the visuals for any of you as I think that they will be most effective and powerful when unexpected by the audience.)
Tripes gives an exquisite performance as Chief, the mentally ill son of a Native American chief, allowing the audience to peer inside his complex mind of the seemingly "deaf and dumb" patient: watching the cogs turn, if you will. There is a seamless transition - that Tripes is able to stunningly pull off - between the free speech of his soliloquies toward the audience, and the ambiguous non-communication of his present mental condition.
Something amazing that Greg Cichinno, the director, and his ensemble were able to perfect? Consistency. Even consistent inconsistencies. By that, I mean the sporadic physical reality of a mental patient's self: often going back and forth between fully losing your mind and just breaching the surface of objective sanity. Victor Albaum's performance as doe-eyed mama's boy, Billy Bibbit - clad with a speech impediment (or façade of a speech impediment) - went back and forth between having a heavy stutter and a slight stutter. Which, I thought to be jarringly inconsistent at first, but then it came to be downright clever as the production continued. In general, the inconsistencies gave Kesey's characters so much more depth than one might realize.
On the other hand, Kirk Gostkowski, as the mental ward's resident anarchist R.P. McMurphy, offers us the other side of the coin through his performance. I know, I know. Some people will never be able to get over Jack Nicholson's award-winning performance as this iconic character. He is, of course, a standard to strive for. Gostkowski manages to bring his own cards to the table - quite literally, in fact - and challenge what we associate with McMurphy. Gostkowski's performance is quite consistent in his characterization of the iconic character, which I would really only be able to describe as that drunken uncle at a family reunion that doesn't recognize his niece and accidentally hits on her. In most ways, it works in that it provides a terrific foil to Leigh Anne West's totalitarian-yet-passive-aggressive-about-it Nurse Ratched. Yet, it also provides an even more excruciating deterioration of McMurphy's mental state.
I'm not here to play the Venn diagram, compare-and-contrast game with Nicholson and McMurphy. I merely say that for this version of Cuckoo, it's what's needed. Ms. West's performance was another case of this. Others could argue that Nurse Ratched should vary her body rhythms more and gradually come to a boil, but then there would be no surprise. Ms. West's Ratched was wretched, but poised. It was this poise that made any slight break of focus in the character due to Gostkowski's actions even more fascinating to watch.
Other memorable performances included that of Jacklyn Collier as the delicious "Jersey-Girl" Candy Starr, and Mark A. Keeton as effeminate "closet-case" Dale Harding. Keeton's take on Harding was very reminiscent of Blance DuBois from Tennesee Williams's A Streetcar Named Desire, but the persona breached even further than that. It was a very moving variation to watch: several moments where his melodramatic tendencies were actually very humanizing and sympathetic, rather than Melodrama's tradition of two-dimensional stock characters.
Under the direction of Greg Cicchino, the cast of ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO'S NEST includes: Victor Albaum (Flak House), Jacklyn Collier, Michael Horowitz* (Water from the Moon), Kyle Kirkpatrick, Alexandra Kopko (The Brothers), Steven Martin, Sean MacBride Murray, Maria Prudente*, Michael Selkirk* (King Lear), Doug Stone* (155 First Avenue), Paul Terkel, Lenny Thomas (What's in a Name), Constantin Tripes (Frankenstein vs. the Mummy), and featuring Leigh Anne West* as Nurse Ratched and Kirk Gostkowski (Hurlyburly, Leave Me Behind, The Shape of Things) as McMurphy. (*These actors are appearing courtesy of Actors Equity Association)
The performance schedule for ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO'S NEST will be Wednesday-Saturday evenings at 8pm with 2pm matinees on Saturdays and Sundays April 10 - April 25. Tickets are $18 and are available through Variations Theatre Group - or by calling 866-811-4111. The Chain Theatre is located at 21-28 45th Road in Long Island City, just ten minutes from Times Square via the 7, E and M trains to Court Square Station.