Tuesday, September 09, 2008

The Therapeutic Community (Cuckoo!)

Washington DC company Keegan Theatre are back in Ireland for their annual tour of the country. This year they bring their production of One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest to Galway, Kilkenny, Roscommon, Longford and Thurles. I was at the Pavilion Theatre, Dun Laoghaire last night to catch the tour kick-off.

Keegan specialise in staging Irish theatre in the US and I've been lucky enough to see them reciprocate with shows like Death of A Salesman, A Streetcar Named Desire and Glengarry Glen Ross on several of their previous visits to Ireland. It's always a treat to experience these American classics voiced by an American troupe. Staging is usually restrained, but the performances make up for this by embracing the characters and flinging them around the text with gusto. There's nothing particularly avante garde going on here - just solid, professional interpretations of classic texts, treated with respect and enthusiasm - just what the doctor ordered!

With a cast of fourteen, this is one of the larger productions to date. Possibly because of this, it felt a little slow to get going. Like many of the Keegan shows, audiences here may be more familiar with this play's cinematic incarnation (and that delerious Jack Nicholson performance is hard to forget!). However, the play was written in 1963 by Dale Wasserman, adapted from Ken Kesey's bestselling 1962 novel - and it retains the novel's narration by Chief Bromden, which the movie dispensed with. A lot depends on the shimmering intensity and pathos of that character on stage. Here, Kevin Adams gives a rumbling, resonant performance as the visionary (fake) catatonic – but the required gravitas was elusive to start with.

However, once Keegan stalwarth Mark A. Rhea scraps his way onstage, things kick off with aplomb. Rhea has taken centre stage on recent tours and his McMurphy is a wiley thug with a heart of, if not gold, at least solid brass. Sheri S. Herren is Nurse Ratchet with a restrained performance that gradually blooms into glacial cruelty.

The ensemble playing might fluctuate, but the central performances anchor the core of this countercultural polemic. Kesey’s writing is sometimes swamped by the appeal of his Merry Prankster persona and it’s a welcome reminder of his ability to see these characters fleshed out here. (I’m sure Wasserman played his part too – as does the show’s director Susan M Rhea).

Nowadays, we’re dangerously close to apathy about the issues Kesey was addressing; the power of the ‘Combine’, alienation, selling nobility down the river, abuse of power, the nature of insanity - they all get an airing in this work – and can still trigger modern relevances as well as wistful retrospection. I was reminded of Hunter S Thompson’s comment about California's Summer of Love;

"We had all the momentum; we were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave. So now, less than five years later, you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look West, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark -- the place where the wave finally broke and rolled back."

Less appealing, and yet very interesting, is the somewhat misogynistic subtext of the work. Almost all the female characters - on or offstage - with the exception of “Candy & Sandy” (the light, lewd relief) and one repressed, Catholic nurse are harridans of the highest order. ‘Ratshit’ herself, Patient Harding’s coquette wife, The Chief’s white mother, and Billy Bibbit’s tragically controlling mother are all apportioned their share of blame for the emasculation of the noble urges of the (male) individual... whereas, Doctor Spivey, and even the bullying ward orderlies, are reprieved by a backslapping camaraderie and fondness for the odd toke, or whatever. This theme had previously bypassed me somewhat, and it’s a strength of the work that the often overlooked patriarchal baggage of the 'counterculture' is overt here.

These aspects, coupled with the central theme of the Chief’s physical loss of aboriginal nobility - via his father’s malleability and weakness - brought the shadow of Hemingway looming over proceedings for this punter. There’s no doubt that Hemingway was an influence on Kesey (along with Burroughs, Steinbeck and Faulkner) - but whether this patriarchal inheritance is consciously written, I can’t say.

Keegan Theatre are touring Ireland until October 4th – full schedule here - and I’d guess this production will get better and better as it tours!