Commentary

Reviews (6)
PCS Takes on Kesey, Again

Alison Hallett | The Portland Mercury [03 Mar 2011]

A few years ago, Portland Center Stage (PCS) produced an original adaptation of Ken Kesey’s brilliant Sometimes a Great Notion. Despite the challenging nature of the material (it’s about loggers!), it was a beautiful show that boded well for this season’s adaptation of PCS’ One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Kesey’s equally compelling 1962 novel. But while Notion managed to distinguish itself from both the novel and film versions of that story, PCS’ current production of Cuckoo’s Nest can’t quite crawl out from the shadows of the work that came before it.

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As the swaggering Randle P. McMurphy, PJ Sosko has the unenviable task of playing a role defined by Jack Nicholson—and while possessing a certain charisma, he never quite resonates as a symbol of all the freedom the men on the ward are afraid to take.

Gretchen Corbett successfully conveys a menacing restraint as the infamous Nurse Ratched, who rules the ward with a combination of guilt and fear. But Corbett’s white uniform all but disappears against the set’s pale walls—and so, too, does some of the power of her character. Conveying Nurse Ratched’s force without turning her into a cartoon character is a challenge, and while I’m glad Corbett erred on the side of restraint, this performance would’ve been even more effective on a smaller stage.

Rounding things out is Tim Sampson as Chief Bromden—if he seems born to play the role, it’s because he basically was: His father played the same part in the film.

From these three characters, it should be possible to triangulate the heart of Cuckoo’s Nest—but Bromden’s oppression, Ratched’s pinched authoritarianism, and McMurphy’s oversized spirit never quite line up, as though each actor is acting on a slightly different stage.

And yet it’s the stage itself that offers the show’s best moments (scenic designer Tony Cisek also worked on Sometimes a Great Notion, and Sam Kusnetz and Diane Ferry Williams contribute powerful sound and lighting design). The ward’s colors are a toothpaste palette of white and pale green; menacing shadows crisscross the stage; and a long hallway stretches an improbable distance upstage. Now and then, the shadows hit right, the ward thrums like a machine, and a heavy sense of menace and claustrophobia sets in—but otherwise, it’s just a bunch of loveable crazies, playing basketball in a psycho ward.

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A staging that’s equal parts Kesey and Kubrick

Ben Waterhouse | Willamette Week [02 Mar 2011]

Under other circumstances, it would be the gravest of insults to say an actor was upstaged by the scenery, but in Rose Riordan’s new production of Kesey’s classic novel, it could hardly be otherwise. Here the asylum is not merely the setting but the lead antagonist: a breathing, blinking being dedicated to extinguishing the humanity of its inhabitants, with Nurse Ratched as its agent. It’s a hell of a set piece, designed by Tony Cisek and lit in a breathtaking realist style by Diane Ferry Williams, all green tile and fluorescent tubes and heavy steel doors, and it transcends verisimilitude. It glowers.

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If this sounds a bit like the Overlook Hotel, it’s intentional. Riordan’s vision draws from a long history of plays and films about haunted places, from the House of Usher to the Event Horizon, and the production is rife with horror movie tropes: flickering lights at the end of a dark hallway, haze, thunder, constant thrumming and even, at one point, distorted children’s voices.

It would be cheesy if it weren’t so frightening. As the stakes climb in the second half of the play and Ratched’s own madness becomes apparent, I felt the claustrophobic panic of a Hitchcock thriller.

The play, adapted by Dale Wasserman, predates Miloš Forman’s film by more than a decade, and retains the language of machinery (in Chief Bromden’s paranoid internal monologue) and the emasculation of Kesey’s novel. Riordan combines the two: Bromden’s destruction of the nurse station’s blinking electrical apparatus is not just an assertion of his power over the Combine; it is, in a neat conceptual turn, the neutering of the hospital.

The human performers in Riordan’s production are, for the most part, very good: Tim Sampson is painfully broken as Chief Bromden (the role his father played in Forman’s film); Gretchen Corbett makes an icy, baleful Nurse Ratched; and PJ Sosko, as Randle P. McMurphy, more or less reprises his performance as Hank Stamper in Sometimes a Great Notion, which is fine by me. The best of the bunch, though, was Ryan Tresser, appearing in Portland for the first time as Billy Bibbit, the fragile youth driven to desperation by Ratched’s browbeating. He makes his character’s psychosis far more real than those of his fellow inmates, and his fate is, accordingly, more upsetting than McMurphy’s.

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Portland Center Stage puts its imprint on Kesey’s ‘Cuckoo’s Nest’

Michael McGregor | The Oregonian [01 Mar 2011]

Few movies have imprinted themselves on the public consciousness like Milos Forman’s 1975 version of Ken Kesey’s “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” It is one of only three films in the Academy Awards’ 83-year history to sweep the Big Five: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay, Best Actress and Best Actor.

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The actor, of course, was Jack Nicholson, whose kinetic portrayal of maverick and rogue R.P. McMurphy cemented the public’s view of both him and the story’s main character. In the post-1975 world, even while reading Kesey’s 1962 novel—where McMurphy is described as “redheaded with long red sideburns”—it’s hard not to picture Nicholson’s leering face or the ramrod-stiff walk and prim demeanor of Louise Fletcher’s Nurse Ratched.

For better or worse, the film’s long shadow falls thickly across Portland Center Stage’s revival of Dale Wasserman’s “Cuckoo’s Nest” play, which premiered on Broadway in 1963 (with Kirk Douglas as McMurphy), just one year after Kesey published his novel.

The play differs significantly from the movie, restricting the action to one location and taking us more fully into the mind of Chief Bromden, the huge, apparently catatonic Native American who views himself as undersized until McMurphy empowers him. But the basic story is the same—and there lies the challenge for PCS Director Rose Riordan: How do you make such a well-known story feel fresh?

Assembling an impressive cast helps too. When PJ Sosko (who played Hank Stamper in PCS’s 2008 production of Kesey’s “Sometimes a Great Notion”) swaggers onto the stage as McMurphy, it’s impossible not to compare him to Nicholson. Within a few minutes, though, he has made the role his own. His McMurphy is less leering, sneering junkyard dog than laughing, dancing bantam rooster.

While Gretchen Corbett’s Nurse Ratched incarnates the rigid, follow-the-rules mentality of the Combine, as the Chief calls it—the soul-crushing, machine-like culture that turns the individual into a hollow shaft of hay—she has a softer face and a more-vulnerable manner than Fletcher. One of the play’s best features, in fact, is how much more balanced the battle between McMurphy and Ratched seems.

The rest of the cast is excellent too, particularly those in the main patient roles—John Shuman as a prancing, hallucinating Martini; Craig Bockhorn as an alternately cringing and angry Cheswick, Ebbe Roe Smith as a shy, bomb-making Scanlon; Stephen Caffrey as a haughty but ultimately helpful Harding; and especially Ryan Tresser as a heartbreakingly innocent Billy Bibbit, the stuttering suicide.

Then there’s the set by scenic designer Tony Cisek, one of the most convincing you’ll see on a Portland stage. A high-ceilinged, dingy-walled, meticulously detailed institutional ward, it features large screened doors and windows, a nurses’ booth backlit by orange lights on a massive control board, and a long hallway of rooms with a lighted door at the end—the door to the desired and dangerous outside world.

The pieces are all there. And the play, being a play rather than a movie, does a better job than Forman’s film of showing McMurphy, Nurse Ratched and the Chief in context. Instead of individual stars, we see an ensemble, a community, and a bigger world. The persistent thrum of the giant machine the Chief is afraid runs everything, and the daylight that streams through the cruelly large locked windows reminds us that bigger forces are always at play, dwarfing and at the same time magnifying the courage, frailty, intransigence and transience of man.

Is all of this enough to freshen a well-known story? Not always. Sometimes the over-familiarity and the play’s traditional proscenium staging make the action feel slow. But Riordan and her cast and crew have fashioned such a fine-tuned—and finely attuned—version of this classic Northwest tale, the slow parts are almost welcome as opportunities to reflect on the distinctively Northwest issues and attitudes embodied onstage.

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Cast Shines in Portland Center Stage’s ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’

Ron Hockman | CultureMob [01 Mar 2011]

Given the strong acting, brilliant set design, and evocative lighting, opening night of the Portland Center Stage’s production of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest was a success that will only grow stronger with each performance. Director Rose Riordan does an excellent job of infusing fresh energy into a play that has become a mainstay of the American stage. She and her accomplished actors have put their unique stamp on an American classic that explores the conflict between the individual and an oppressive authority whose purpose is to subdue the spirit through a rigid adherence to rules. And nowhere is this more evident than in the state mental hospital where patients are subjected to vapid elevator-music as they ingest daily doses of medication that leaves them listless and submissive, wasting their unlived lives in the mindless routine of the ward. All under the watchful eye of Nurse Ratched, the Big Nurse, for it is she who controls the ward. That is until the arrival of one Randle Patrick McMurphy.

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It must be daunting for any actor to assume the role of McMurphy when it is so closely associated with Jack Nicholson’s performance in the 1975 movie. When Mac first appears in the ward I thought of Nicholson, and it took me a bit to warm up to PJ Sosko. His “good ole boy” demeanor lacked a bit of the swagger, the con-man-glint-in-the-eye, bawdy, boisterous behavior. But I soon realized he wasn’t playing Nicholson, he was playing McMurphy. This was clear when Sosko, as Mac, new to the ward, observes the catatonic Chief Bromden scraping gum from a chair. He gently offers the hulking Chief a stick of fresh gum. A simple but revealing act: Mac is not just about swagger, spontaneity, and rebellion. Beneath the male bravado is a human being capable of compassion, in stark contrast to Nurse Ratched, who cares only to control.

Mac feigns mental illness to avoid working at the prison work farm. His history of petty crime ranges from assault to statutory rape; however, as Mac is quick to point out, “I like to fight and fuck… and she was very willing, if you know what I mean.”

During Mac’s first therapy session, Nurse Ratched asks Harding, one of the inmates, to explain the importance of group therapy to McMurphy. Harding, played by Tour of Duty’s Stephen Caffrey, postures as an intellectual but is weak and ineffectual, all bombast and bluster. He explains that the group represents a microcosm of society in which rules are made to be followed to ensure order, and that the sessions are to help inmates overcome their problems so they can get healthy and rejoin society. When McMurphy questions the rules, Billy, a shy, stammering inmate, explains that Nurse Ratched creates the rules because she cares for them. Mac disagrees and calls the nurse a “ball cutter.” In this ward the meek inherit nothing. And from there the contest ensues between Nurse Ratched and Mac, two strong-willed individuals with very different perceptions: one affirming life, the other suppressing it.

The ward is comprised of two groups of inmates: the “curables” who are by their own admission “weak” and incapable of functioning outside the ward, and the “chronics” who have been subjected to multiple electro-shock treatments and/or lobotomies. They exist on the ward as vapors, protoplasm, vegetables, for as one of the curables explains: “No one lives there anymore.”

The curables include beside Harding and Billy Babbitt, the impish Italian Martini, Scanlon the doomsayer, and Cheswick, the shrill-voiced, fat, balding neurotic Cheese Puff. The actors portraying the curables do an excellent job with the various quirks, tics, and idiosyncrasies , but I found myself fastened on the mannerisms of Cheswick. Craig Bockhorn’s antics as Cheswick are hysterical. During the therapy session he garned the first laughs by mocking Harding’s failure as a husband as the session dissolved into chaos. Also commendable was Ryan Tresser’s portrayal of the shy, virginal, insecure Billy Babbitt. His final scene with Nurse Ratched was as hard to watch as it was moving – very powerful. All the actors are impressive. Gretchen Corbett as Nurse Ratched coolly controls the ward with a condescending voice void of passion or feelings. She has no interest in a “cure” for the inmates. Her interest lies solely in a strict adherence to the rules. For without rules, chaos reigns. She controls the imates by using their weaknesses to humiliate them, and she is deviously cunning in her attempt to turn the inmates against Mac.

Tim Sampson is excellent as Chief Bromden. He is the son of Will Sampson who played the Chief in the 1975 movie. One scene among many is memorable: Mac needs all the votes of the curables in order to watch the World Series. Even though they all raise their hands Nurse Ratched refuses the privilege because she declares “all the inmates on the floor have to agree.” The inmates now notice the Chief seemingly comatose over his broom. Like Mac says, “She likes a rigged game.” But Mac is persistent and encourages the Chief to raise his arm, but to no avail. Mac withdraws and slumps in a chair. The inmates carry on as they are used to disappointment and failure. The Chief stands apart from them. And then slowly, ever so slowly, his arm begins to rise. The inmates watch in wonder as the Chief’s arm goes up. The ward erupts. The curables unite with Mac, and the Big Nurse’s authority is temporarily usurped. Consequences will occur.

A play succeeds by the strength of its story and not necessarily by its stage dressing. Cuckoo’s Nest remains a compelling story and succeeds, but in this production the stage dressing enhances the success. The set designed by Tony Cisek is a remarkable replica of the interior of a state mental hospital. Center stage serves as the day room, which the inmates use for recreation and the group sessions. Overlooking the day room is the Nurses’ Station, with its menacing and ubiquitous red lights glaring from the control panel. From here the staff dispenses meds, plays insipid music, and regulates the rigid schedule. The lighting, designed by Diane Ferry Williams, is highly effective from the brilliant white glare that bathes Nurse Ratched to the shadows that haunt during the Chief’s monologues. All this combined with the subtle but effective sound effects, contributes to an outstanding evening of theater. Kudos to The Portland Center Stage for providing a thoughtful, entertaining, and professional production that succeeds on so many levels.

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Portland Center Stage presents ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’

Marty Hughley | The Oregonian [25 Feb 2011]

“Sometimes our choices end up being strangely like premonitions,” director Rose Riordan says about the timing of the production of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” opening Friday at Portland Center Stage. “In the news lately there’ve been all these stories about the Oregon State Hospital and about the criminally insane, the hospital’s being torn down, and there’s a documentary coming out, and all these things going on.

“But that’s just a coincidence.”

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The past few weeks have seen headlines about a wrongful-death suit filed against the state hospital, attempts to match old cremated remains with family members of former patients and a legislative attempt to refine the standards on mental-health commitments of criminals.

Mental illness is a hot topic onstage lately as well. Third Rail Rep just concluded its production of Anthony Neilson’s “The Wonderful World of Dissocia,” about the colorful delusions and numbing hospitalization of a woman with a dissociative disorder. Next week, Oregon Children’s Theatre opens “Chamber Music,” a one-act play set in a 1930s insane asylum.

But, no matter the scheduling of “Cuckoo’s Nest,” the show would have pertinence, immediacy. Ken Kesey’s tale of oppression and rebellion within a state mental hospital is an enduring best-seller and “a paradigm of the successful struggle of the individual against at once an oppressive society, his own human weaknesses, and cosmic indifference to his wishes and welfare,” writes M. Gilbert Porter in “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest: Rising to Heroism.”

It’s an American classic, but more than that, it’s a crucial piece of Northwest lore. Kesey took much of his inspiration for the story from a stint as a night-shift psychiatric aide at Menlo Park Veterans Hospital in California. But having grown up in Springfield, he set the book in the Northwest, and it is rife with references to familiar places and kinds of people.

Stepping out of film’s shadow

Published in 1962, Kesey’s novel has been an enduring success, included by Time magazine on its list of the “100 best English-language novels from 1923–2005.” The 1963 stage adaptation by Dale Wasserman ran on Broadway, but it is Milos Forman’s 1975 film—which starred Jack Nicholson as the charismatic hero Randle McMurphy and won five major Academy Awards—that lingers the most in popular memory.

“When I took the play home, all these memories of the movie came rushing through my head,” Riordan recalls. “I saw it once, years ago, and I hadn’t realized what a strong impression it had made on me. There were details of the movie that were still fresh in my head.”

To a much greater extent than when Portland Center Stage created a version of Kesey’s other masterpiece, “Sometimes a Great Notion,” in 2008, putting “Cuckoo’s Nest” on stage requires not just capturing some essential quality of the novel but stepping out of the shadow of the film.

“Now the book is our only reference,” Riordan says. “We haven’t watched the movie, we don’t talk about the movie; I think that’s a slippery slope. The challenge of course is: ‘What are people’s expectations going to be?’ I think if we do our job right, they may have expectations when we start, but I think they will allow us to tell the story.

“I actually feel more confident doing it here in Portland than if it was in a different city. I think more people are going to connect with it because they’ve read the book, as opposed to referencing the movie.”

Four ‘Chronics’ added to cast

The milky-sounding strings of easy-listening music waft through the large, third-floor rehearsal room at the Gerding Theater on a recent afternoon, a purposeful contrast to the orchestrated chaos being acted out. The cast is working on a scene in which McMurphy, a gambler and roustabout who had figured a stay in the mental hospital would be easier than completing his assault sentence on a work farm, is throwing a party. He bribes a guard, sneaks in women and liquor, and tries to show the other patients how to let loose and live.

Riordan stops the actors from time to time, suggesting adjustments to the timing of the lines, the traffic of people and props. She also has a word of general advice about how they approach their characters: “Follow your lesser impulses.”

Stacked benches and sheet-music stands are arranged in a rough facsimile of the nurse’s station, which gets appropriated as a makeshift bar. Several men in pale bluish-green scrubs whoop it up in a kind of awkward revelry. Toward the back of the room, away from the main action, Noel Plemmons tenses and twists his body, sometimes gibbering inaudibly as he makes his way slowly around a gurney.

Plemmons is known around Portland as a dancer, not an actor, but he’s one of four cast members Riordan has added to the 16 called for in the script. The new four are what are known within the story as “Chronics,” those not expected to recover from their debilitated state.

“They’re part of the smell of the hospital,” Riordan says. “But they don’t have a function that’s spelled out in the script. So adding more bodies to the stage has been really complicated.”

Getting the atmosphere of the hospital right might be of particular concern for this production, the aforementioned Oregon State Hospital being where the novel was set (presumably) and the film was shot.

In late January, on the second day of rehearsals, the cast took a rented bus on a field trip to the hospital. Riordan talks of “rolling up to the hospital and trying to imagine, if you were sick, what it would feel like (to arrive there). Would it be comforting? Would it be frightening? I think about it a lot. I guess it would depend on what your Achilles’ heel is. I think I could deal with whatever kind of physical disability. But losing your mind—I can’t imagine the fear that would go along with that.”

The actors weren’t able to observe patients, and the main area where filming had taken place had just been torn down. But PJ Sosko, who plays McMurphy, and Tim Sampson, who plays longtime patient Chief Bromden, were let into an atrium “where that first unshackling scene with Jack Nicholson was filmed—that sent shivers up my spine,” Sosko says.

Sampson had been there before. His father, Will Sampson, played Chief Bromden in the movie, and a few years later brought Tim to see the hospital. “The building’s changed, but the spirit of it is there,” Tim Sampson says.

No doubt he and the rest of the folks at Center Stage are hoping the spirit of Kesey’s novel is there onstage in this “Cuckoo’s Nest.” Sosko, a New Yorker who last performed here as Hank Stamper in “Sometimes a Great Notion,” believes that spirit is especially important—and reachable—here, on the story’s home turf.

“I know that the people coming to see this are excited to see this story come alive for them,” he says. “There’s nowhere else you can do this play where it will have the same kind of effect.”

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‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’: Three actors hold keys to unlock story’s power

Marty Hughley | The Oregonian [25 Feb 2011]

The action of Ken Kesey’s “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” centers on a battle of wills between Randle McMurphy, a convict who thinks a trip to the state mental hospital will be an easy way to ride out his sentence, and Nurse Ratched, who runs the ward with a calm smile and an iron fist. But, in some ways, the key character is Chief Bromden, the ward’s longest-tenured patient, who serves (in the novel and to a lesser extent in the play) as the story’s narrator. His relationship with McMurphy and the contrasting arcs of their fortunes are the heart of the matter.

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Mac, Big Nurse and Chief Broom—as the characters also are known—are the keys to the story’s power. Here’s a look at the actors tasked with bringing them to life onstage.

PJ Sosko (McMurphy)

Director Rose Riordan says that in casting someone as Mac she “was looking for someone who had a level of charisma and testosterone. The thing that PJ has is he’s a little larger than life naturally. Mac is kind of a soft-hearted thug, and I think PJ has some of that.”

Sosko lives in New York, where he’s done stage and TV work (including a villain role on one of the final New York episodes in the “Law & Order” franchise). But he worked previously at Portland Center Stage in the lead role of a 2008 stage adaptation of Kesey’s other masterpiece, “Sometimes a Great Notion,” and is happy “to come back here and do another character in the canon. It’s a real small canon, and I’ve done it now.”

“Honestly, dude, I didn’t trust anyone else to do it right. Mac’s an entertainer; I’m an entertainer. I’m not coming from a place of being a (jerk). I dunno, I just think I’m a good egg. And I’m here to tell a story.”

You might think Sosko has a tough job, stepping into a role made famous by Jack Nicholson in the Oscar-gobbling film. But, though he says he’s always admired Nicholson’s performance, he’s not thinking about that.

“There’s a free spirit in Mac that everyone can relate to. Jack had his version and I have mine. You can’t play Mac without a devil-may-care attitude. And I got a good devil in me.”

Gretchen Corbett (Nurse Ratched)

“All the time, when I tell people what role I’m doing, they go, ‘Whoa!’” Corbett says. “She looms large. My challenge with this is to come at it as though she’s a real person. And I have to make it up, because it’s not really in the book.”

Indeed, Kesey kept his story’s villain pure. She’s seen only through the eyes of others, for whom she is an unchanging symbol of oppressive power and control. So it’s up to Corbett, a respected veteran of the Portland stage, to play the woman behind the smiling yet fearsome facade.

“Every Nurse Ratched does the same thing,” she notes. “But this is my Nurse Ratched. I know I don’t look like the woman described in the book…but I have my own little backpack of thoughts about her.”

Tim Sampson (Chief Bromden)

As striking as the characters of McMurphy and Ratched need to be, Riordan says she never worried about finding suitably compelling actors for those roles. But Bromden, the towering half-Native American who becomes the focus of the story’s redemptive theme, was another matter. “It’s so specific, in terms of his size, his age.”

Tim Sampson, it turns out, has equally specific connections to the role. A member of the Muskogee tribe from Oklahoma, not only has Sampson played the part before (alongside Gary Sinise in a Steppenwolf Theatre production that ran in Chicago, London and on Broadway), but his father, Will Sampson, also played the role in the 1975 movie.

The father-son connection is crucial. The elder Sampson got his son into acting and stunt work, and in Tim Sampson’s view the key to understanding Chief Bromden is in the love the character had for his father, whose humiliation was the cause of the Chief’s own mental collapse.

When performing on Broadway, Sampson recalls, he came to recognize the power of the story’s messages, which at least in part relate to the importance of continuity with nature, family and culture. “One night this great big man came up to me after the show, crying. And he said, ‘Tonight I’m going to go right back to the hotel and call my dad.’”

That connection is part of what it means to be mentally healthy, Sampson says. “My dad used to always tell me, ‘Always know where you’ve come from, who you are and where you’re going.’”

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