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STAGE REVIEW : Deaf/West Reworks ‘Cuckoo’s Nest’

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

There’s a wonderful moment in Deaf/West’s production of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” at the Fountain Theatre, when Dr. Spivey (Gregg Berger), after an emotional outburst, looks at his hands in wonder, and the audience realizes with him that he’s been using sign language as he speaks.

His signing and speaking have flowed together with such passionate energy that we have forgotten, as the character obviously has, that he “doesn’t know how” to sign--his way of keeping his distance from, and authority over, the deaf patients on the mental ward he supervises.

By relocating Dale Wasserman’s stage adaptation of Ken Kesey’s novel about that ward’s liberation to an asylum for the deaf, and giving the patients hearing supervisors, Deaf/West has found new levels of meaning in an otherwise dated text. The production is filled with rich moments, such as Spivey’s realization, that draw meaning from the way in which they’re communicated. A particularly ingenious choice is making the newcomer McMurphy (Larry Bazzell) hard-of-hearing.

An outsider to both the hearing and the deaf worlds, he speaks and signs simultaneously, bringing those worlds together onstage and in the audience. Bazzell’s charismatic performance brings out the combination of recklessness and vulnerability that make McMurphy so intriguing.

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At its best, Deaf/West’s “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” throws conventional methods of evaluating spoken theater into an exhilarating tailspin. The simultaneous translation of the deaf inmates’ signing, which hearing audience members listen to on infra-red headphones, is so well done--the voices so well matched to the personas of the actors on stage--that we lose the distinction between them.

To praise Bob Hiltermann’s lovably sensitive portrait of Dale Harding is also to praise the voice actor who’s interpreting his lines (four actors supply all the voices), and director Stephen Sachs for making their performances fuse so seamlessly. In making these distinctions, hearing audience members are made to wonder how Hiltermann’s performance comes off to deaf members of the audience.

The transposition of the setting to the deaf asylum doesn’t always follow logically. In the play, the character of the Chief has driven himself into catatonia, which is not adequately explained here. Wondering what we are to make of the Chief’s deafness starts us on a dangerous path of questioning that threatens to overturn the production’s entire premise.

It’s a shame, also, that “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” written some 20 years ago, has aged so poorly; no measure of sophisticated interpretation from Sachs and his company can disguise a heavy-handed and overwritten script. Its depiction of women as passionless taskmasters or simpering airheads is particularly unsettling. Jane McDonald does a wonderful job, though, in breathing life into one-dimensional Nurse Ratched; her performance shows the terrifying outcome of good intentions gone awry.

“One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” is the first of five Deaf/West productions funded by a $375,000 grant from the Department of Education. A company member says they’re on the lookout for new plays for deaf performers to add to their repertoire. Hopefully, in that search, they’ll find material more in line with the company’s obvious skills than their present offering.

* “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” Fountain Theatre, 5060 Fountain Ave., Hollywood. Thursdays-Sundays, 8 p.m.; Saturdays-Sundays, 2 p.m. No matinees Saturday and Oct. 31. No Sunday evening performances Nov. 8, 15, 22. Ends Nov. 22. $15; (213) 660-0877, TDD (213) 660-8826. Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes.


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