Saturday, October 20 , 2018, 3:45 pm | Fair 85º


Gerald Carpenter: ‘Cuckoo’ Flies Again at Camarillo Community Theatre

Ken Kesey's renowned novel, play and movie gets a fresh performance on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays through Sept. 25

The Camarillo Community Theatre is presenting One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest through Sept. 25.

Ken Kesey wrote 'One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest' after working in a Menlo Park mental hospital.
Ken Kesey wrote One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest after working in a Menlo Park mental hospital.

The performance is directed by Brian Robert Harris and produced by Dean Johnson, and stars Dan Saad in the role of Randle P. McMurphy, Jessica Verdi as Nurse Ratched, Chris Alton as Chief Bromden, Jim Seerden as Dale Harding and Patrick Beckstead as Billy Bibbitt, with Martin Lawrence Scott, Jeffrey Long, Cory Wysznsky, Drew Davenport, Azia Crescenzo, Amanda Elliott, Phil Levere, Olivia Heulitt and Matt Bergstrom.

Ken Kesey finished his novel, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, in 1959, and it was published in 1962. It sold well, especially the paperback edition, but in cloth it never reached the top 10 fictional best-sellers for its year (nor, for that matter, did Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, now celebrating its 50th anniversary). The following year, Tony-winner Dale Wasserman adapted Cuckoo’s Nest for the stage. Starring Kirk Douglas as McMurphy, Gene Wilder as Billy Bibbit and Ed Ames as Chief Bromden, the play opened on Broadway in November 1963 and ran for 82 performances. The show was revived off-Broadway in 1971, and again on Broadway in 2001, with Gary Sinise as McMurphy.

Douglas liked the part so much he bought the film rights to the novel, but by the time a film of Cuckoo’s Nest became feasible, Douglas was too old to play McMurphy. Eventually, he passed the rights on to his son, Michael, and the film was made in 1975, directed by Miloš Forman, with a screenplay by Lawrence Hauben and Bo Goldman. The movie went on to win all five major Academy Awards: Best Picture, Best Actor (Jack Nicholson), Best Actress (Louise Fletcher), Best Director and Best Screenplay — the first to make this sweep since It Happened One Night in 1934.

So successful was the movie that it eclipsed both the play and the novel itself, inflating the story from an important event in the worlds of literature and theater, respectively, to a huge pop culture phenomenon. It also marked the completion of Nicholson’s rise to permanent, indelible stardom (although he had already given better, more interesting performances in Five Easy Pieces, Carnal Knowledge, The Passenger and Chinatown). It is not a coincidence that, for the next quarter-century, no further revivals of the play took place in this country. Who wants to be compared to a living legend?

Kesey was a founding father of the 1960s zeitgeist, and Cuckoo’s Nest is by far his most important book. The novel enshrines two major elements of what, for the purposes of simplification, I will call the “counter-culture” of that still-controversial decade: 1) the charismatic anti-social thug, and 2) the sentimental reverence for mental illness. The protagonist, Randle McMurphy, has been convicted of battery and gambling — and charged, although not convicted, of statutory rape. To get out of serving out his time doing hard labor on a prison farm, he has feigned insanity convincingly enough to get himself transferred to a state asylum for the insane. With his congenital hostility to all authority. McMurphy immediately falls afoul of the domineering ward nurse, Miss Ratched, and the story of the novel (play, movie) becomes that of a contest of wills between the two. McMurphy sees himself as a free spirit and liberator; Miss Ratched sees him as a problem and a threat to her wing of the social order, of which she considers herself the honorable defender.

I have not seen the play, but the novel seems to me to lend itself better to dramatization than to filming. It will be a relief to consider the issues raised in the story in the context of a human-scaled production, without having to correct for our inevitable bias in favor of Nicholson (and my own bias against Forman). This should be a memorable theatrical evening.

Performances of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest are at 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays through Sept. 25. The Camarillo Community Theatre is located at 330 Skyway Drive in Camarillo. Ticket prices are $18 (adults), $13 (seniors, students and military) and $10 (children 12 and under). Call 805.388.5716.

— Gerald Carpenter covers the arts as a Noozhawk contributing writer. He can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

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