At performances of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest by the Madison Theatre Guild, I imagine most audience members are ready to compare the efforts of the lead actors to those in the 1976 Milos Forman film, which garnered Academy Awards for Jack Nicholson and Louise Fletcher.
It's a little tough to push those iconic performances aside (in last week's Isthmus: "Let's see if Kamal Marayati in the lead role brings pyrotechnics comparable to Jack Nicholson's in the film version"). But the adaptation of Ken Kesey's novel by Wisconsinite Dale Wasserman debuted on Broadway in 1963 (starring Kirk Douglas in the lead role), so for Saturday night's performance at the Bartell Theatre, I tried to look at the play with fresh eyes.
The play stars Marayati as Randle Patrick McMurphy, a charismatic rabble rouser with several counts of assault and a recent statutory rape charge on his rap sheet. He feigns psychosis in order to serve the remainder of his sentence at a psychiatric hospital, which he assumes will be more comfortable then the work farm. Immediately upon his arrival he upsets the balance of power on the ward ruled by the steely Nurse Ratched, whose sadism is barely masked by her curt professionalism.
McMurphy's fellow patients are fascinated and energized by his impulsive and rebellious attitude, and he forms friendships with the stuttering, jittery Billy Bibbit, a young man with mommy issues, and Chief Bromden, the huge and imposing Native American who has been catatonic for as long as anyone can remember. Ratched and McMurphy (betting the other patients that he can put a "burr up that nurse's butt") engage in a battle of wills that ends in tragedy.
Set designer Frank Schneeberger's ward of institutional green tiles is realistic, even if some of the acting isn't. It's probably tricky to calibrate a portrayal of a mentally ill character (too much and it gets campy and over the top), and some of the cast members fare better than others. My favorite was Mark Huismann's take on Dale Harding, the erudite gentleman grappling with his sexuality. Another standout in a small role was Stuart Brooks as Dr. Spivey, the ineffective and overextended psychiatrist who is charmed by McMurphy and manipulated by Ratched.
Marayati (who has an impressive background of stage, television and film credits) captures the volatile and stubborn nature of McMurphy, but I preferred his quieter moments -- when he learns the Chief's secret and later realizes that many of the men on the ward are there voluntarily and may, like McMurphy himself, be hiding from the real world. When Marayati amped up the bravado and physicality, I found myself comparing him more to John Travolta than Jack Nicholson (maybe some of that had to do with the oversize leather jacket).
As Nurse Ratched, icy blond Stephanie Monday is appropriately menacing. Director Sam White's heart must have skipped a beat when Joe Getty auditioned. His enormous frame and impassive demeanor are perfectly suited for Chief Bromden.
I liked the content and the pacing of the first act better than the second, but thought the performances improved in the second act, as the cast calmed down a bit.
Watch a trailer for the production.
The crowd at Saturday's performance was enthusiastic and large. It's heartening to see that people are taking in some theater even in this tough economy.