BCT’s budding stars deliver vibrant ‘Cuckoo’s Nest’

Teresa Gelsomini and Sam Mulcahy in “One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest.” Photo: Maggie Hall

BOSTON – The Boston Children’s Theatre and its New England Theatreworks troupe have shown in recent years that they are up to the challenge of works such as “Spring Awakening” and “The Diary of Anne Frank.”

The BCT is now presenting through April 29 the stage version of “One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest” by Dale Wasserman (“Man of La Mancha”), who adapted the Ken Kesey novel that was made into an iconic Oscar-winning movie in 1976 starring Jack Nicholson, Louise Fletcher, Danny DeVito and Brad Dourif.

Fletcher, in the role of Nurse Ratched, made two simple words – “medication time” – into a chilling indictment of and a call for reform of the country’s mental health system.

BCT Executive Artistic Director Burgess Clark, who directed this production, and Toby Schine, the executive director and producer, have upped the ante for their charges in recent years, especially with the The New England Theatreworks company, which consists of teens, young adults and those college-age and above – in this case ages 14 to 25 – who have designs on professional careers.

They are also performing in professional settings such as the Plaza Theater at the Boston Center for the Arts and Clark and Schine are surrounding their cast with some of Boston’s best designers, including set designer Jenna McFarland Lord, whose rendering of the late 1950’s ward of a mental hospital is depressing, stark, and richly detailed.

On a recent opening night performance, the cast members were still feeling their way into the roles, standard operating procedure for the first night of the run, but there were several accomplished performances already in place in the tale of rebellious con man/small-time crook who upends the status quo in the ward of a mental hospital. 

Residents of the ward “watch’ the World Series in “One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest.” Photo: Maggie Hall

 

Sam Mulcahy wisely decided not to dredge up our memories of Nicholson in the film in his portrayal of Randle Patrick McMurphy, who agrees to be committed to the mental hospital because it would be easier than doing six months on the prison farm. It doesn’t take him long to see after he’s arrived that the residents of the ward are abused individuals who have been bullied into a pitiable existence, in which basic freedoms are snatched away at a moment’s notice.

Teresa Gelsomini as Nurse Ratched is a former Army nurse and Gelsomini has the stoicism and rigidity of the character down pat, even as she seethes with anger after McMurphy starts getting the best of her and rallying the troops against her.

McMurphy is amazed to find out that almost all of the patients in the ward are there by choice and – unlike himself and a few others – are free to leave at any time.

Even a win for McMurphy – the previously unresponsive Chief raising his hand to “vote” in a bid to change ward rules and put the World Series on TV — sees Ratched pulling the plug on the game.

She also employs group therapy sessions as a form of psychological torture, meant to intimidate and shame residents into silence.

Owen Sherrin as Dr. Spivey is on to Nurse Ratched’s ways up to a point, serving as a buffer between her and McMurphy when she threatens to make him pay a very heavy price for his rebelliousness, until she is finally able to bait him into the violence she needs to take out her revenge.

And wile Ratched and McMurphy are the leads, the two roles that might actually be the hardest are those of Chief Bromden (Keith Robinson) and Billy Bibbit (Miles Tardy).

The events of the book are seen through the eyes of Chief Bromden, a huge American Indian. He is silent and believed to be both deaf and dumb for much of the time.

But even after emerging from a prolonged silence from what the others believed to be catatonia, the Chief still believes as a man he isn’t “big enough” to throw off the shackles of the asylum. Robinson handles the change well, but he should still be a lumbering, halting type and less agile than what Robinson allows him to be at times.

Tardy’s Billy Bibbit is a stammering, tongue-tied young man whose wants and needs are completely stifled under the thumb of Nurse Ratched. It is extremely difficult to get the balance between the character’s innocence and the tongue-tied stammering right, lest it turn into a caricature, but Tardy seemed to have a handle on it on opening night.

Christian Tasiopoulos is Dale Harding, the obviously intelligent but timid head of he Patients’ Council who is one of the residents shamed by Ratched’s “group therapy,” in this case her focus on his sexuality.

The other residents of the unit are Kevin Paquette as the volatile Charles Cheswick, Alex Cox as the delusional Martini, Rory Shaw the bomb-obsessed Scanlon, and there are two fine turns by Alex Strzemilowski as Ellis and and Jake Wetmore as Ruckly, two residents who are hopelessly disabled.by a botched lobotomy and electroshock treatment.

The smaller roles of nurse, aides and women who attend McMurphy’s ill-fated party are capably performed, including Charlotte Wallace as Candy Starr, a lady friend of McMurphy’s who’s assigned to show the virginal Billy “a good time.”

Because of the subject matter, the BCT is requesting that that those 14 and under attending be accompanied by a parent or guardian.

The book of “Cuckoo’s Nest” was written in 1962, at time when many Americans – including the author of the book, Kesey, and his group of “Merry Pranksters” – were rebelling against the strictures of American society, and McMurphy and, later, Chief Bromden, are symbols of the restlessness that would become evident in the 60s.

It’s message remains relevant and timely, and in this “Cuckoo’s Nest,” the budding stars have delivered performances worthy of actors well beyond their years.

The Boston Children’s Theatre presents a New England Theatreworks production of “One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest.” Play by Dale Wasserman adapted from the novel by Ken Kesey. Directed by Burgess Clark. At the Plaza Theatre at the Boston Center for the Arts through April 29. bostonchildrenstheatre.org

Keith Robinson and Sam Mulcahy in “One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest.” Photo: Maggie Hall

 

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