Review: ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’: Mingle with the patients before the drama really begins
The way things are going, life in a lunatic asylum might seem like a tempting upgrade if it weren’t for the prospect of an open-ended stay. Fortunately, only a short-term commitment is required to sample the psychiatric care of After Hours Theatre Company and its elaborately immersive staging of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.”
Upon admittance to the SIX01 Studio converted industrial space on the outskirts of Burbank, audience members can check themselves into categories that wittily mirror the psych ward demographics of Ken Kesey’s original novel, a critique of mental institutions. The higher-functioning Acutes interact with the cast throughout the evening, whereas the incurable Chronics take traditional, passive seating around the perimeter.
For the first hour, however, both patient types mingle freely around a performance space of about 5,000 square feet, which director Jonathan Muñoz-Proulx and producer Graham Wetterhahn’s design team have ingeniously transformed into a credible psych ward, complete with rec room and nurses station. Soothingly authoritarian staff dispense diagnostic wisdom and encourage us to join our fellow patients for puzzles and games at the tables flanking the central open stage.
It turns out all these seemingly unconnected therapeutic pursuits provide clues to an intricate overarching mystery and treasure hunt conceived by Sara Ashley Beil. Plan on getting there at least a half-hour early if you want to tackle the brain teasers and to gain access to your patient file. Alternatively, you can head straight for treatment at the full bar (“pharmacy”).
Oh, and there’s also a play — quite a solid one, in fact — performed with committed passion after an inventive back story bridges the transition from interactive pre-show to formal theatrical presentation.
Dale Wasserman’s 1963 stage adaptation adheres more closely to Kesey’s novel than the 1975 movie with Jack Nicholson. It preserves the central role of Chief Broom, the book’s towering, half-Native American narrator. With heartbreaking eloquence, Eduardo Fernandez-Baumann recites the Chief’s stream-of-consciousness meditations on the insidious societal combine that grinds individualism into mechanical compliance.
Andrew Schmedake’s evocative lighting employs more than 150 independently operated filament bulb pendants strung through the performance space to switch between the Chief’s rich interior perceptions and the catatonic persona he presents to the outer world.
It takes the outreach of newly arrived inmate Randle P. McMurphy (Mick Torres) to draw the Chief out of his self-imposed isolation, and the slow-building trust and affection between them is beautifully played by the two actors. Torres is every inch the beguiling huckster, though lacking some of the character’s gritty hardening from a lifelong refusal to abide by the rules.
Foreshadowing the anti-establishment defiance of the ’60s, McMurphy combats his nemesis in the despotic Nurse Ratched, played with unflappable plastic smile by Courtney Lloyd. The Big Nurse oozes fake compassion and steely manipulation — until the climactic tragedy, when she unexpectedly displays genuine regret for the outcome rather than simply exploiting it. The choice adds a layer of human nuance, but it slightly diminishes her adversarial status.
Strong supporting performances from the ward residents — Curtis Scott and Frank Gullihur in particular — make this more of an ensemble piece than a duel between the leads.
As a sobering classic drama wrapped in a theme-park interactive attraction, the show exhibits symptoms of multiple personality disorder, but skillful integration makes the diagnosis benign — and thoroughly engaging.
♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’
Where: SIX01 Studio, 630 S. Flower St., Burbank
When: 8 p.m. Thursdays, 9 p.m. Fridays, 7 p.m. Sundays; ends July 1. Dark June 23
Tickets: $55 (for Chronic) or $75 (for Acute)
Running time: 3 hours, 15 minutes
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