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Blank Canvas Theatre’s production of ‘Cuckoo’s Nest’ is crazy good

Some scenes from the Blank Canvas production of "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest".
Some scenes from the Blank Canvas production of "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest".
Andy Dudik

One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest

Rating:
Star4
Star
Star
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One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
Blank Canvas Theatre
(at 78th Street Studios)
1305 West 78th Street, Suite 211
Cleveland, OH 44102
Through August 2, 2014
Fridays & Saturdays at 8:00 p.m.
Sundays at 7:00 p.m.
Tickets are $15.00

There is an undertone of desperate energy that draws you into this production.
Blank Canvas Theatre

First there was the book by Ken Kesey in 1962 from which the play (1963) was developed by Dale Wasserman, and in 1975, Miloš Forman directed a screen adaptation, which won the "Big Five" Academy Awards: Best Picture, Best Actor (Jack Nicholson), Best Actress (Louise Fletcher), Best Director (Forman) and Best Adapted Screenplay (Lawrence Hauben, Bo Goldman). Thus is the history of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”. The play is a far more faithful rendition of the book having Chief Bromden being the main narrator.

The play made its Broadway debut on November 12, 1963 and ran for a total of one preview and 82 performances. Since then the work has had an off-Broadway revival in 1971 as well as a Broadway revival in 2001.

This work is now being performed by Blank Canvas Theatre at 78th Street Studios. Considering the size of the theater (just over 100 seats which were filled to capacity on opening night) the cast does an amazing job considering what small space they have to work with. The set consists of a day room in a ward of a state mental hospital. There is a door located up stage, stage right that leads to the ward lavatory as well as a locked and secured door on stage left. Lording over everything is the nurse’s station that is an encased glass room set high above the floor of which in front is a box with two silver electrical pipes coming out of it. In the center of the room is a table with four chairs, there are two wooden chairs upstage, stage left and a metal and vinyl chair on the other side of the nurse’s station. There is a bench downstage center and a fifties style television with a really tiny screen up on a post shelf stage right down stage. Except for the bench, table and chairs the room is painted an antiseptic white from top to bottom.

Chief Bromden is a supposedly deaf mute Native American who has secret dialogs with his long lost father about how humanity has been turned into rusting and broken machines. Enter Randle P. McMurphy who is a small time crook that has been shifted from one penal institution to another. While working in the fields of his last incarceration he decides to get himself sent to the state mental hospital in order to avoid the hard outdoor labor of the work farm. McMurphy is a gambler, brawler and trouble maker who represents the counter-culture prevalent in the 60’s. He brags about being charged but not convicted of statutory rape of a seventeen year old. He is tossed in with a group of social misfits that society says should stay locked up, although, unlike McMurphy, they can sign themselves out (except for Ruckly who is chronic) at any time, but who remain because of their fear of society and the outside world.

There is Martini who is in a constant state of hallucination, Billy Bibbit who stutters uncontrollably due to an overbearing mother further compounded by an overbearing Nurse Ratched, Dale Harding as a woman intimidated man, Scanlon who is a closet anarchist who dreams of blowing things up, Cheswick who is the first to actually support McMurphy against Nurse Ratched and Ruckly a botched lobotomy victim who spends the play “nailed” to the wall.

Each is damaged goods who prefer the safety of the mental institution compared to the chaos of the outside world. Lording over her domain is Nurse Ratched who uses drugs, guilt, self loathing, intimidation and threats in order to keep everyone in line. This program has worked for years up until McMurphy’s arrival. He soon finds that the “democratic system” that the inmates use is controlled by the will of Nurse Ratched as she manipulates “the system” in order to have her own way and to maintain order.

The simple fact is, Nurse Ratched does not want her patients to get better but by keeping the pressure on them does not allow for growth or healing thus keeping her in a position of authority in her little world. Assisting her are her Aides (Warren and Williams) who take great delight in harassing and teasing the patients.

Over the course of time, McMurphy cleans up financially by teaching the inmates blackjack, causes upheaval during group sessions, introduces basketball to the day room, attempts to disrupt the work schedule in order to watch the World Series and arranges for some female companions to break in for a nocturnal visit and party. In response, Nurse Ratched takes away privileges, scolds, intimidates and berates the various inmates.

Even electroshock treatment on McMurphy does nothing to slow him down. It is only during the before mentioned party that everything comes crashing down and the play travels to its sad but liberating conclusion. On the high note, the least obvious character is the one who is able to fight against oppression, conformity, and totalitarianism while escaping the prison within the confines of his own mind.

Of special mention in this production is Aaron Patterson as Chief Bromden who plays the role with a sly smile played on his lips and in the end is the one who flies. Daniel McElhaney who brings the bravado needed for the part but could tone it down just a bit to be more effective (more sarcasm, less boisterous), Perren Hedderson as Billy Bibbit who masters the stutter and “whipped puppy” demeanor necessary for the role (one suggestion would be to speak clearer and with more authority when confronted by Nurse Ratched after his sexual dalliance thus making his return to stuttering more profound) and Michael N. Herzog as the constantly hallucinating Martini who is in a state of constant motion that adds rather than detracts from the scenes.

Prude Alert: No doubt about it, this is a disturbing play to watch. Along with the portrayal of mentally disturbed people there is some profanity, violence, sexual references and strong themes. Not a show for the easily influenced or weak of heart.

Beefs and Flubs: This is a well organized and directed cast that is able to make the stage area seem larger than it is. One note on the theater, with the lights from the stage and the capacity crowd of just over a hundred bodies the air soon became very close and insufferably hot. A solution to this perennial summer problem at Blank Canvas must be found with either better air conditioning or a series of fans to bring fresh air in from outside. The comfort of the audience should be paramount to all other matters.

Shooting From the Lip (In My Opinion): “Cuckoo’s Nest” is what one might consider a “complete” play that touches on all of our emotions. We experience laughter, sorrow, compassion, anger, fear and empathy as we see ourselves through the various portrayals of the characters. While you may like or not like the ending, this is an intense night of theater that will leave you drained but in a good way. Great cast with a great vehicle.

The Cast

Aaron Patterson as Chief Bromden, Pete Jolicoeur as Aide Warren, Joe Virgo as Aide Williams, Anne McEvoy as Nurse Ratched, Britanny Gaul as Nurse Finn, John J. Polk as Dale Harding, Perren Hedderson as Billy Bibbit, Len Lieber as Scanlon, Chris Ross as Cheswick, Michael n. Herzog as Martini, Matthew Lenczewski as Ruckly, Daniel McElhaney as Randle P. McMurphy, Ken Allan as Dr. Spivey, Dave Moody as Aide Turkle, Monica Zach as Candy Starr and Kim Woodworth as Sandra.

The Crew

Directed by Patrick Ciamacco, Stage Managing by Brittany Gaul, Costume Design by Luke Scattergood, Lighting Design by Cory Moiner, Set, Sound and Technical Design and Technical Directing, Patrick Ciamacco, Assistant Scenic Painter is Becca Frick with Noah Hrbek doing Window Scenic Painting.

The Blank Canvas production of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” runs through August 2 with performances on Fridays & Saturdays at 8:00 p.m. and Sundays at 7:00 p.m. Tickets are $15.00.

To purchase tickets for this show CLICK HERE.