A REVIEW BY RIVER STYX
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is an actor’s wet dream, and the cast in Spotlighters’ current production gets off for two and a half hours (with a 15-minute intermission). It’s exciting to watch the actors twitch, stutter and sprint – yes really – around Spotlighters’ intimate theater in the round.
Set a story in a mental institution, and you’ve got Characters with a capital C. The absolute standouts in the expansive 18-person cast are the seven featured mental patients. Each fully commits to his character, which exhibit a fascinating array of mental health issues. Because of the full-on commitment by these men, each of their featured scenes are heartbreaking when they might have otherwise been cringe-inducing.
Nathan Parry as Chief Bromden opens the show with a slow rotation around the stage, each step as if he is trying to keep his balance, and his stare is not empty, but a façade of depths to be fallen into. This is Parry’s first show in Baltimore, and, man am I looking forward to seeing him again. Then we meet the other patients at morning pill distribution in a parade of unique characters.
As the sexually repressed “president of the patients’ council” Dale Harding, Jose Reyes Teneza is the voice of reason desperate for control. Teneza does an excellent job of suggesting homosexual tendencies without slipping into stereotypical tropes. The excellence continues with Michael McCoogan as stuttering, suicidal Billy Bibbitt, whose wide eyes and nervous gestures fully made me want to step on stage, give him a hug and be all “step off, bitch” to Nurse Ratched, played by a somewhat soft-spoken, but effectively still Suzanne Young. Despite his Clark Kent looks, Brian Kraszewski enthusiastically brings the perviness as Charles Atkins Cheswick, III, and even faux jerks off into a pitcher that he then drinks from in Act II. David Chalmers as Frank Scanlon really cares about his box, which he clutches the duration of the show. And you know what? I do, too. Jim Baxter, stop your hallucinating, twitching Sonic-the-Hedgehog antics. No, don’t stop. Baxter as Anthony Martini ups the nervous energy throughout the show, and elicits a majority of the sparse giggles from the audience. Frederick Frey has one of the most challenging roles, as he is imaginarily crucified against the wall of art therapy drawings for most of the show. Although he doesn’t have many lines, he is captivating wherever he is on stage.
The other star of Spotlighters’ production is the excellent staging and direction by Greg Bell. There is so much intrigue in the blocking and movements in the small space, which along with the featured patients provides the production’s energy and tension. I was so impressed with Bell’s direction and instincts that when I saw in his bio that he had played R.P. McMurphy, I wish he had been the lead in Spotlighters’ production, which is instead played by Robert Oppel. Oppel has an impressive rap sheet of directing and acting credits, but seems to be resting on his laurels instead delving into his character with the same vigor as his castmates. Although his non-verbal acting is quite good at the end of the show (his reactions to others as well as when he becomes a shell of his former self), he ends up being one of the only actors not committed in this otherwise fascinating collection of mental hospital residents.
The tension of the story should be between McMurphy and Ratched, — who when played by Jack Nicholson and Louise Fletcher, earned them acting Oscars for the 1975 film adaptation. However, neither lead actor in Spotlighters’ production seems to be having as much fun acting as the patients, or aids – effectively played by David McKay, Aaron Hancock and Donnie Lewis with Parker Bailey Steven as the perpetually scared nurse. Amy Bell, who doubles as the production’s costumers and plays McMurphy’s party-girl friend Candy Starr, doesn’t fit well in her part. This is mainly because – don’t take this personally, Bell’s family—but Amy doesn’t look cheap. She looks like a mom, especially with those pretty, conservative A-line skirts she rocks in her scenes. It’s weird casting, but then I read that she is married to the director. Oh, community theater politics. Lauren Schneider, as party-girl Sandra, is only on stage briefly, but joins the credibility ranks of the featured patients with her commitment to her good-time floosie character. She also had the low-cut shirt and tight-fitting skirt to match. Speaking of clothes, the costumes are spot-on, ironically except for Candy’s.
Spotlighters is an interesting space to dress, with its four massive columns cornering the stage. Alan Zemla transforms it into an institutional mint green hospital, and even utilizes the corners, which become a nurse’s station, art-therapy board and window to the outside. Fuzz Roark’s lighting design is dramatic and intriguing, each low-lit and red-and-blue scene adding to the weight of this compelling story.
THE BOTTOM LINE: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is full of fully committed actors who enthusiastically embody mental hospital patients and make you want to step up on stage and hug it out during group therapy. The staging is one of the most dynamic I have seen in non-professional theater, and the set is peppermintly effective. Even though the leads are not as stellar as the supporting cast, Spotlighters’ production is well worth seeing.
Running at Spotlighters through April 19th.
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