By Patsy Isenberg
It’s ironic how in sync “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” at Flint Repertory Theatre’s (The Rep’s) Elgood blackbox stage last Friday (the 13th, as it happened) echoed how it seems so many of us were feeling that day. It was the opening night for the show. I kept checking the theatre’s website all week to make sure they hadn’t cancelled or postponed the opening.
But it was supposed to take place the following weekend as well. That’s what they finally had to cancel. So, hand-sanitizer in my bag and tissues stuffed in my coat pockets, I headed to the theatre.
It was the play I was most looking forward to this season, not just because it was getting a lot of buzz, but I’d seen the movie many years ago. I was also intrigued by the themes this play illustrates.
Besides, Michael Lluberes, artistic director at The Rep, was directing, and he gets to choose which shows he wants to direct. He chose this one. “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” was at times violent, poignant and even a little humorous. The actors had to pull off some real physical challenges in many scenes.
The 1975 Academy Award winning movie, starring Jack Nicholson and Louise Fletcher which was directed by Milos Forman and produced by Michael Douglas, was widely seen. The 1962 novel by Ken Kesey quickly became a national classic, and “Cuckoo’s Nest” played on Broadway twice and off-Broadway once.
The story takes place in a mental institution in Oregon. The hospital is poorly overseen by a strict authoritarian, Nurse Ratched (Janet Haley). She intimidates everyone on the staff, including the doctor the patients see (Rico Bruce Wade) and the aides she has employed (David Guster, Vaughn Kelsey Davis and Wade in a second role).
The eight male patients live in fear without hope of being released, until Randal McMurphy (Michael Lopetrone) is transferred there from prison. (Both Haley and Lopetrone were remarkable in “The Glass Menagerie” last year.)
McMurphy takes pleasure in lighting a fire under the other inmates and challenges Nurse Ratched on everything. The group begins to wreak havoc in the ward. With narration by one of the patients, native American Chief Bromden (Jeremy Proulx), who feigns being a deaf-mute, the audience is pulled into his hallucinations.
The actors playing the patients were all amazing. Bret Beaudry played Dale Harding, the “leader” of the group of patients until McMurphy arrives. Josh Clark played Billy Bibbit who stuttered and had self-esteem and mother issues and shaved areas of his hair. Bart Allen Burger played Scanlon. Mark Gmazel (“Assassins”) played Cheswick and shaved his whole head for the role. Martini (played by Danny DeVito in the film and one Broadway production) was played wonderfully by Steven J. Mokofsky. And last but definitely not least, Michael Kelly (“The Chairs”) played wheelchair-bound Ruckley.
Meredith Deighton (“The Wolves,” “The Glass Menagerie,” “Into the Woods,” and “The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds”) played Candy Starr, the fabulous party girl who shows up. Destiny Dunn (“The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” and “The Miracle Worker”) played two roles, Candy Starr’s friend at the party, Sandra, and Nurse Flinn.
One irony that strikes me about seeing this production on the very day that the coronavirus crisis reached frightening new peaks is that the hospital setting is surrounded by plexiglass on three sides and the normal black stage backdrop on the one remaining side–distancing the cast from the audience. The set was awesome. The audience peered into the hospital environment through protective glass while the actors looked outward. Freelance set designer Shane Cinal did the set design for this play and many other past productions of The Rep such as “The Boatman,” “Assassins,” and “Into the Woods.”
The visuals were even further enhanced by the lighting and costumes.
Lighting was especially important. Typical fluorescent lights in the ceiling of the staged hospital were part of it. During Chief Bromden’s hallucinations, moving blueish lights on a darkened stage rolled over everything to add to the dreamlike quality to what Bromden was experiencing. The lighting was designed by Chelsie McPhilimy.
The staff wore head-to-toe stark white and the patients wore matching light gray sweatsuits. The exceptions were McMurphy’s orange jumpsuit on his arrival from prison and the skimpy attention-getting clothes of the two party girls. Costume color echoed the lighting contrast between the harshness to which the patients were subjected, the darkness of Bromden’s hallucinations and the unexpected entrance of the girls to the party. Nurse Ratched’s white uniform was stunning though, adding to her self-importance.
The sound was created by Eddy Mineishi. Since the action took place behind walls of plexiglass microphones must have been different than in most stages. There was music too. There was the piped in Muzak at times, and a few familiar songs such as “Crazy” by Patsy Cline and, near the end, Pink Floyd’s “Comfortably Numb.” And Nurse Ratched (behind another plexiglass barrier in her work station) would sometimes make announcements.
When I got to the theatre I was surprised to find the parking lot full. Amanda Miller, The Rep’s production house manager, said there were more than 70 in the audience on opening night–out of 99 available seats. It seems quite a few people were ready to savor the theatre, even the disturbing story of the Cuckoo’s Nest. When the world is making so many of us feel off balance, quarantined and separated suddenly in cloistered worlds, the question of who’s really crazy and the price paid for sanity–seems uneasily apt.
I was a little nervous about the leftover cough from the flu I had in early February, worried some people would be wary of me. I also spent some time anticipating how to behave–and I made an effort not to sit or stand too close to anyone or accidentally touch a person. My ex-husband was going to see the play with me but changed his mind, due to being in one of the “risk groups.” He’d had a role in the Avon Players production of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” many years ago and was excited to see it. I expected to see someone wearing a mask since it’s not that unusual lately, but there weren’t any at the theatre that night. I had just armed myself with tissues.
The ushers asked people to tear their own tickets and place them in the baskets they were holding. Usually on opening night The Rep hosts a reception after the play but it was canceled that night. It’s understandable and the responsible thing to do. We are all trying to get used to this new way of behaving. At least until it’s over.
Many weeks of rehearsal went into bringing “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” to the stage at The Rep, only to end up canceling the second weekend. The Rep put a bulletin on its home page a couple of days before it opened announcing the cancellation. They offered to exchange any tickets purchased for seats available for the first weekends’s shows. Luberes said would cap audiences at 99 for each performance.
On my way out of the theatre I stopped to talk to Lluberes and congratulate him. I overheard him and Jason Briggs, an actor and the theatre’s audience engagement and development officer. They were exchanging sighs of relief with a little bit of eye-rolling as if to say, the past week had been very stressful but that they’d accomplished their goal which was to open the play they’d all worked so hard to put together. The show must go on, right?
Luberes told me this opening was a “very unique night – one of those you never forget where you were” when it happened. I instinctively lifted my hand and patted his’ arm with an empathetic and congratulatory gesture. On my way to the car though I wondered whether I should have even done that. Silly? Maybe, but these are the times we’re going through right now.
“One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” is part of the 2019-2020 Signature Series sponsored by Whiting Foundation, Charles Stewart Harding Foundation and John MacDonald.
EVM Staff Writer and theatre reviewer Patsy Isenberg can be reached at email@example.com.