BWW Reviews: Devastating, Exhilarating ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO'S NEST at freeFall

Forget Jack Nicholson and his beloved portrayal of Randle P. McMurphy. Put all thoughts out of your head of the refrigerator-cold interpretation of Louise Fletcher's villainous Nurse Ratched. In fact, as much as you may love the 1975 film version of ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO'S NEST, it's best to stash it away for right now. Because we're dealing with an entirely different beast with freeFall's total immersive staging of this iconic work. Comparing the Oscar-winning film to the astounding freeFall experience is the difference between watching a rollercoaster and actually being on the ride.

I'm not always a fan of immersive staging, but when it's done right, it can be exhilarating. And it works beautifully with this particular show. The audience sits around the entire theatre--on vinyl white couches, or around circular tables, scattered about; we're all in this cuckoo's nest together. The actors run and fight through the crowd, hiding between chairs, standing on the backs of the couches. At times they are mere inches away from the public, and there's always something going on. Every seat is great, and every audience member gets to be a part of the shared experience (though the actors did not interact directly with us, except once out of necessity with the retrieval of a basketball).

Dale Wasserman's translation retains the brilliance of the Ken Kesey novel. The story of the mental institution inmates enlivened by the roguish outcast called McMurphy, and McMurphy's war with the terrifyingly authoritative Nurse Ratched, is known by most everyone. But this out-of-the-box re-telling, rightly set in the early 1960's, illuminates the story's freshness and brings it to life in surprising ways. It's as if we've never seen the actual CUCKOO'S NEST until now.

James Oliver makes for an electric McMurphy. He is a life force, magnetic, sparking the inmates (and the show) with a Tasmanian Devil vigor. Oliver is a ballsy, brazen presence, thrusting his will from one side of the theatre to the other. Charismatic, funny, and intensely focused, he uses his body in every way necessary. We root for him, applaud his victories, and cry at his fate. And when he's onstage, he's "on" all the time, pumped with adrenaline, yet we never grow tired of his energy. We want and need more McMurphy in our lives. You can easily see him as the symbolic Christ figure, and everyone, including the audience, wants to follow his robust lead.

Local favorite Roxanne Fay is not my first thought when imagining Nurse Ratched, but she soon quells any doubters with her harrowing portrayal. She is a scary, fierce, orderly she devil saying more with a power-hungry glance and an inappropriately teeth-gritting smile than with any words. She wants order in the combine, not cures. She plays elevator muzak (including an easy listening rendition of "Put Your Head On My Shoulders") to keep her strong-armed orderliness of the ward. She's more diminutive than maybe we expect for this "Big Nurse" (as she's called in the book), but Fay comes across as a Napoleon in nurse white. And near the dramatic end of the show, when McMurphy attacks her and rips open her outfit (as he does in the book, not the movie), perhaps this monster becomes a bit clearer to us--is it "Miss" Ratched's repression of all things sexual that has caused this sterile, cold-hearted, anti-humanity and freedom-stifling creature?

Every performance is stunning. Aside from Oliver, my favorite in the cast is Larry Alexander as the closeted Dale Harding, who shows us what it's like to stunningly own a part. He's mesmerizing. Michael Nichols' is a fine Chief Bromden, and his connection with Oliver's McMurphy is incredibly touching. There is a scene in Act 2 where Nichols giftedly showcases his range in what can be labeled an acting tour de force.

Grayson Lewis makes for a movingly pathetic Billy Bibbitt. Each one of the inmates (played by Peter Konowicz, Leigh Simons, Ward G. Smith and Rick Stutzel) has his particular quirks and moments to shine; they are always in character, all the time. Kara Goldberg as Nurse Flynn, Hannah Benitez as Sandra and Natalie Simons as Candy Starr are uniformly excellent. The performances of the aides of the institution (played by Bob Devin Jones, Robert Richards, and Darrick Penny) are also incredibly strong. Richards has one of my favorite moments in the show: when McMurphy is strangling the nurse, the actor does something I have never seen in a production of CUCKOO'S NEST--he turns to another aide to stop him from intervening, and the two of them, backs turned, refuse to help the retched Ratched. The ward and the world--from the inmates to the ineffective doctor (wonderfully played by Steve Garland) and now to the terrorized aides--seems to become unified 100% against Ratched. It's a small moment that Richards has, but a brilliantly realized one.

The ending left the audience devastated; after the curtain call, you could see so many of them (including me) wiping tears from their eyes. You may know the ending, but you haven't experienced its true power quite like this.

Amazing sets are becoming de rigueur at freeFall, and Steve Mitchell's design here is expectedly magnificent. Aside from the areas where the audience sits, there is a central elevated stage with atomic age colors and Mondrian shapes. The entire theatre is put to use in an amazing utilization of space--a veritable playground for these lost souls, a literal loony bin.

There is a moment in Act 2 when a portion of the stage opens up from the floor to become an electro shock therapy center (audience members near me gasped when it was ultimately unveiled). The scene that follows, where in slow, meticulous detail, we watch McMurphy experience the horrors of electro shock, is as terrifying as anything we have seen on the stage in recent years. Lights quickly flash on and off, buzzing blares loudly, and McMurphy twitches in agony. It goes on and on, and the audience not just understands but experiences the sensation of what our adored Randle is going through. It's enormously distressing and traumatic, and it rivals the Barf-O-Rama from God of Carnage as the Scene of the Summer.

Mike Wood outdoes himself with the lighting design; when oppressive overhead fluorescent lights flicker on to the crackle of Lynchian sound effects, it makes you shudder. Video images enhance the psychosis of the Chief in his brilliantly performed monologues. These phantasmagorias are like something you'd see at a particularly demented "acid rock" concert of the 1960's. Perhaps in an ode to Kesey's LSD-laden Merry Pranksters, hallucinatory images of Nurse Ratched and McMurphy appear on the wall, bleeding into the various psychedelic designs, disturbing and captivating us at the same time.

Most reviewers don't cover the ushers, but House Manager Paige Gilley deserves a special mention. Before the show, she led the packed house into the various seating arrangements in the most professional, courteous, and non-Ratched manner imaginable. Make sure you get to the theatre early so you can get a prime seat to this must-see event. (If you feel intimidated by having the patients surrounding you, then there are seats at the back of the room to suit your needs; but for the fully intended effect, sit in the center and let the madness overwhelm you.)

A show like this cannot survive without the guiding hand of its director, Eric Davis. To stage something like this takes a Kasparov-level artistic chess master. It's so vividly intricate, yet open. Although the action surrounds us from all sides of the acting arena, the audience doesn't miss a single major event. We are left breathless, knowing we are in the presence of masterful staging.

This sure has been one terrific summer for local theatre. Jobsite's inventive Inventing Van Gogh just closed; the marvelous actors of God of Carnage at American Stage will still be clawing at each other until August 10th; and now freeFall's immersion version of CUCKOO'S NEST, the final show in their Season of Outcasts, plays until August 31st. This is not just the best local production of the summer; it's the finest Bay Area play I've seen since American Stage's August: Osage County.

But it's unfair calling this CUCKOO'S NEST a mere play; it's so much more than that. It's a total theatrical experience. And it's not to be missed.

For tickets, please call (727) 498-5205.

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From This Author Peter Nason