Same inmates, different asylum in this 'Nest'

There's a fine but firmly drawn line between directorial innovation and excess. In an otherwise formidable staging of "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" at the beautifully renovated Barnum Hall Theater on the campus of Santa Monica High, Frank X. Ford occasionally blurs that distinction.

Set in a mental institution, "Nest" is a countercultural parable that illustrates how individual expression is suppressed and ultimately destroyed by an inimical system. Coldly received when first produced on Broadway in 1963, Dale Wasserman's play, based on the Ken Kesey novel, was arguably ahead of its time. By 1975, when Milos Forman's landmark film hit theaters, corruption-weary audiences were ready to take note.

But whereas Kesey's novel and previous adaptations took aim at Big Government, this rendition -- the inaugural production of the Santa Monica Civic Light Opera's Viking Underground -- is gunning for Big Business in a big way. No shambling, rumpled lunatics, these. Clad in drab business suits, the inmates punch a time clock as they enter the ward's common room. A sign proclaiming "Combine Industries" is further indication that this particular institution has been privatized with a vengeance.

Into this sterile arena bursts the colorful R.P. McMurphy (Ryan Douglas Hurst), a rollicking free spirit who is soon scrapping with the famously sadistic Nurse Ratched (Cynthia Marty) -- a battle he cannot hope to win, despite the sympathetic support of the institution's head doctor (Stuart Damon).

Lavish production elements include Mike Goode's incredibly detailed set and wonderful video sequences by Psychic Bunny. Indeed, despite its showy revisionist flourishes, this massive production is consummately realized in most particulars. Hurst is superb as McMurphy, as is David Wells as the cerebrally effete Harding. However, under Ford's tutelage, Marty lacks the emotional levels that could have largely redressed the blatant misogyny of the material -- a crucial shortcoming.

-- F. Kathleen Foley

"One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest," Barnum Hall Theater, 601 Pico Blvd., on the campus of Santa Monica High School. 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays; 7 p.m. Sundays; also 2 p.m. July 31. Ends July 31. $20-$25 (310) 458-5939. Running time: 3 hours.

*

Debauchery with a Tanner touch

Prurient zingers sustain "Wife Swappers" at Third Stage in Burbank. Writer-director Justin Tanner's new play guts conservative repression with lewd hilarity, albeit in too small a package.

It concerns the regular revels hosted by Jake (Jonathan Palmer) and Lorette (Ellen Ratner) in their Orange County home, sharply depicted by James Henriksen's setting. Neophytes Paul (Todd Lowe) and his hesitant wife, Karen (Victoria Prescott), arrive from Sherman Oaks, followed by rampant hedonists Mac and Gina (Henriksen and Maile Flanagan). Jovial dominatrix Shirl (Jodi Carlisle) and Paul's uninvited buddy, Roy (Mark Fite), complete the debauched lineup.

By NC-17 standards, "Wife Swappers" is less scandalous than salacious.

Still, the contradictions beneath the ongoing offstage orgy emerge in wild satiric dialogue as motorized as it is unprintable.

What moves this past mere smuttiness is Tanner's distinctive ability to find characters in archetypes, and his matchless ear for the cadences of Southern California, which often scalds.

The expert cast is an invaluable asset. Palmer and Ratner convey roiling discontent beneath their grinning benevolence. Lowe and Prescott fully inhabit the newbies, while Henriksen and Flanagan gobble their rip-roaring ribaldry.

Carlisle and Fite, the catalytic converters of Tanner's social comment, steal it outright.

Less successful is Tanner's one-act format, which stymies the intended ironic effect. The revelations and outbursts feel perfunctory, lacking foreshadowing amid the foreplay and sufficient narrative development to land the pathetic denouement.

Given the gasps and guffaws at the reviewed performance, an audience exists for a full-length "Wife Swappers," but the sector it hectors is unlikely to recognize itself in these self-deluded swingers.

-- David C. Nichols

"Wife Swappers," Third Stage, 2811 W. Magnolia Blvd., Burbank. 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays. Ends Aug. 21. Mature audiences. $18. (818) 842-4755. Running time: 1 hour

*

A few feet short of two yards

Two years ago, late-night audiences at the Evidence Room met Hildy Hildy, a beret-wearing haiku poet who swathed herself in black (a symbol, perhaps, for the black clouds that seemed to perpetually surround her) and wore clunky, thick-soled shoes (emblematic of her tendency to clomp ungracefully through life).

Hildy's oddly exaggerated mannerisms and habit of squeezing and chewing words, as though speaking through a bad cold, were entertaining enough when presented in brief, serialized story lines that were advanced each week as part of a collection of comic sketches called "The Strip." But expanding Hildy's funny-pathetic mystique to a full-length play is another proposition altogether, to judge by "Three Feet Under," one in an envisioned series of Hildy plays.

Here, Hildy (Patricia Scanlon) and long-suffering boyfriend Bob (Hugh Palmer) make a trip to Hildy's childhood home: a family-run pet mortuary.

The script, by Palmer, begins with Hildy listening to self-help tapes to prepare for the emotionally taxing visit. Why taxing? That question is quickly answered as Hildy steps back into the blizzard of blame that swirls around her relationships with her repressed, ever-complaining sister (Kate Flannery) and Frankenstein's monster-meets-Barbara Stanwyck of a mother (Joanna Cassidy, who plays a different sort of monster mom on HBO's "Six Feet Under").

As the family's laundry list of quashed dreams unfurls, Hildy taps unexpected reserves of beneficence and aims the story toward a rather sweet denouement, abetted by director Taylor Negron and the long list of designers who've placed Hildy inside a fever dream of black-and-white polka dots and Rorschach blots. But as tends to happen when "Saturday Night Live" sketch-comedy characters are showcased in feature-length films, the Hildy hilarity quickly wears thin.

-- Daryl H. Miller

"Three Feet Under," the Evidence Room, 2220 Beverly Blvd., L.A. 8 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays. Ends Aug. 8. $20 and $25. (213) 381-7118. Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes.

*

'Four Dervishes' is no whirl

An unhappy marriage of fairy-tale whimsy with topical scenes from the war in Iraq, "The Four Dervishes" virtually bends over backward to fuse its disparate elements. But with few exceptions, the show's storytelling contortions are more frustrating than entertaining.

In a lobby prologue, Victorian explorer Sir Richard Burton (Robert Patrick Brink) gives a blustery impromptu lecture on the fortunes of empires in Asia, North Africa and the Persian Gulf, with contemporary resonances rippling out in unexpected directions. This promisingly erudite, long-viewed opening is over all too quickly.

Once inside the theater, a gauzy sandstorm strands three U.S. soldiers in the desert outside Basra, Iraq, where they'll learn a thing or two about forgiveness and cultural understanding from three jinn and an impish, Polaroid-toting saint, Al Khidr (Amber Skalski). Meanwhile, Burton pores over books in a purgatorial library, wallowing in regret over a fateful trip to Persia.

What follows is a profoundly awkward mix of "Beetle Bailey"-level military humor, fabulist moralizing, play-acted brutality and cloying exoticism. Apart from a breathtaking shadow-puppet sequence designed by Alison Heimstead and consistently strong sound design by co-author Tamadhur Al-Aqeel, the scenes play mostly like one-note sketches without a punch line.

Aside from the maddeningly repetitive script, the main problem is tone. Director/co-writer Katharine Noon hasn't decided what she wants from her capable actors: gritty realism, commedia clowning, stylized story theater? "I was just following orders" is the excuse one hapless soldier offers for fighting a war he doesn't understand. The actors here appear to have been given similarly muddled directives.

-- Rob Kendt

"The Four Dervishes," Ghost Road Company at the 24th Street Theatre, 1117 W. 24th St., L.A. 8 p.m. Thursdays-Fridays; 8 p.m. Sundays. Ends Aug. 8. $15 (310) 281-8341. Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes.

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