Encore Michigan

Cuckoo’s Nest at Monster Box immerses audience in the story

Review January 19, 2020 Patrice Nolan

WATERFORD, Mich.— Monster Box Theatre returns to catalog of American classics to resurrect Dale Wasserman’s brilliant adaptation of Ken Kesey’s novel, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Although originally produced in 1963 (Kirk Douglas played the lead), this “comedic-drama” holds up, and its themes of individual freedom vs. institutionalized order, of the natural world vs. industrial mechanization, still resonate.

It all takes place in a mental institution where the seemingly enlightened treatment masks an undercurrent of institutionalized compliance. This unique Monster Box production literally immerses the audience in the story. To enter the theatre, patrons must register at the visitors desk and receive a pass from Nurse Flinn (Angela Dill) and the orderlies (Sean A. Allen and Daizshawn Hunt). Nametags are to be warn at all times. The play is staged in the round, with audience risers set on both sides of the performance space, trapping everyone inside the gray walls of the psychiatric hospital. The only furniture in the dayroom is stark and industrial. Dead center is the snot-green nurses’ station from which Nurse Ratched and her minions pass out meds and maintain order.

Many of us read One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest in school and more of us saw the film of the same name, so the basic plot is probably familiar. The play is set entirely  in the dayroom of a mental institution. Nurse Ratched rules with an emasculating iron fist and the male inmates cower in her presence. Enter R.P. McMurphy, a self-styled rebel and scam artist who has presumably feigned mental instability (anger issues) to land a stint in the mental hospital — preferable to the hard manual labor imposed at the work farm where he has been serving out a relatively short sentence.  McMurphy immediately flaunts the rules that are the foundation of Nurse Ratched’s world and the basis for her authority. She shoves back with fascist authority and things quickly escalate.

This Monster Box production, co-directed by Artistic Director Paul Stark and Managing Director Tahra Gribbin, underscores the fundamental irony at the heart of the story – it’s good vs. evil, with the roles flipped. The “good” Nurse Ratched and the evil, “sociopathic” McMurphy are in a fight over the lost souls in the mental ward, but it is McMurphy who actually achieves their healing and redemption. In the eyes of Nurse Ratched, this is unforgivable.

Veteran actor John DeMerell plays a wiley McMurphy to Betty DeWulf’s authoritarian  Nurse Ratched. DeMerell is engaging and enigmatic as McMurphy, an essentially likable free spirit who has fought against “the man” most of his life. It’s easy to see that he has little tolerance for authority, especial when “the man” is a woman. But he justly realizes that that Nurse Ratched, through a sly abuse of power, has stripped the inmates of both their dignity and their manhood.

Betty DeWulf is perfect as the icy Nurse Ratched, dispensing her admonitions with the calculated precision of someone who knows exactly how many pills and pointed words it takes to keep men in submission. It’s interesting to note, almost 50 years after the novel’s debut, that the portrayal of a powerful (if unsympathetic) woman who psychologically castrates men still feels ahead of its time. DeWulf’s Nurse Ratched clearly has anger issues and it would be interesting to hear her backstory. We can’t help but imagine the entitled male professors, doctors and bureaucrats who have driven her to seek vengeance on the poor men who have fallen under her power.

Ken Kesey’s story may not have advanced the cause of women’s rights in 1963 (not his goal) but it did put the gross mistreatment of mentally ill people on the front burner. McMurphy quickly assumes the role of the inmates unsought champion. Dale Harding (Ben Apostle), a voluntary patient, learns to consider resuming life on the outside. Stuttering Billy Bibbit (Daniel DeRey), who is sexually repressed by his domineering mother, briefly finds sexual healing under McMurphy’s mentorship. And the “deaf mute” Chief Bromden (Ben Feliciano) reconnects with the source of his inner strength and finds his voice. Feliciano is strong and restrained in this role, which requires the frozen giant to melt on stage and reclaim his heritage. This is an often overlooked theme of the novel and the play; the repressive, industrialized system represented by Nurse Ratched and the mental health system has worked to diminish all free spirits, those like McMurphy, the Chief, and his lost tribe. Because of McMurphy’s example, the Chief grows —regains his stature — and can reclaim his identity.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest requires true ensemble work from its large cast, and the Monster Box company delivers. In addition to those already mentioned, the company includes: Mike Olsem (Charles Cheswick), Alan Madlane (Scanlon), Jim Dunsmore (Martini), J.T. Hershberger (Ruckly), Al Bartlett (Dr. Spivey), Malina Lyons (Candy Starr), and Barbara A. Bruno (Sandy).

This play is vastly entertaining, with brisk dialog, fascinating characters, and a few gut-wrenching plot turns. It represents some of the best work in the American cannon. Monster Box offers a great escape from the winter weather; grab a mug of their gourmet coffee and plan to spend a few hours inside a story that demands and merits our attention.

Click here for show days, times and details.

Read more about One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest 01/17–02/01

Read more about Monster Box Theatre

Week of 10/26/2020

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