Encore Michigan

Flint Rep breathes modern energy into ‘Cuckoo’s Nest’

Review March 20, 2020 David Kiley

FLINT, Mich.–Since taking over the Flint Youth Theatre and transforming it to the Flint Repertory Theatre, artistic director Michael Lluberes has been doing special things in perhaps the most beleaguered city in Michigan. The theatre’s last show of the season, due to the Corona Virus, One Flew of The Cuckoo’s Nest, is no exception.

Besides having consistently excellent casts, FRT is setting a standard for consistently imaginative set design. In this case, he set the ward run by Nurse Ratched behind and inside a plexiglass box with no ceiling.

At first, I thought that it was a measure to cope with Corona Virus–an extreme measure. But no. Lluberes planned this weeks ago, if not months, with set designer Shane Cinal to put the actors and story in a fishbowl to reflect the ecosystem and environment of a mental institution.

At times during the production, patients use the glass, like when Martini (Steven J. Mokofsky) presses his face against the glass facing out to the audience, lips full on the glass. During a denouement moment in the play, Nurse Ratched (Janet Haley) makes special use of the glass that is powerful and surprising. Also inventive is that patients periodically get out glass cleaner and paper towels and clean the glass–in part so that there are no smudges and smears between the actors and the audience. It feels perfectly in character, and in-story.

Michael Lopetrone as McMurphy brings raw energy to a psych ward heavy on the lithium and valium. Donning an orange jumpsuit as he arrives, his manic, hyper energy works in contrast to the rhythmic slowed down pace of his fellow ward mates. It’s like he is running at 45 rpms on a turntable to their 16 rpms. Lopetrone nails the alpha-male, instigator, con-man survivor quality of McMurphy.

The story is not set in the 1960s or early 70s as the book and movie were respectively. To that end, perhaps the most interesting and layered characterization comes from Janet Haley. Rather than wearing the expected nurse uniform with perfectly set white nurse’s hat we have come to expect, Haley’s Ratched is more of a counselor than nurse, dressed in a white skirt and tailored jacket, her hair left long, curled at the ends with a curling iron, and nail polish. Haley exudes a sexual alpha female, dominating this ward of misfit-toy men, most of whom are self-committed—submitting to her authority. Haley lends an extraordinary modernity to a character written almost sixty years ago.

McMurphy comes into the ward, not submissive and medicated, but an alpha himself, oozing sexuality that ultimately comes out when his floozy girlfriend (Meredith Deighton) comes visiting, and later gets smuggled in for a party. He not only challenges the control Ratchet has on the ward, but crowds her sexual aura with his own—shattering the social distance between patient and overseer.

What we see unfold is McMurphy challenging the self-imposed docility of the men, trying to re-awaken their manhood along with liberating some cash from them through card games. He is Christ-like to this lost, isolated village.

The cast of patients worked in concert perfectly: Bret Beaudry as Dale Harding; Josh Clark as Billy Bibbit; Mark Gmazel as Cheswick; Bart Allen Burger as Scanlon; Steven J. Mokofsky as Martini. Michael Kelly as Ruckley. And Jeremy Prouix as Chief Bromden. The developmentally disabled Billy, in my view, is one of the toughest to get right in this play as it requires serious range to cover shame, sexual excitement, despair and more. Clark nails this with his stuttering Billy, never falling into stereotype or wallpaper. He is entirely believable and authentic. Prouix is a Native American and well-traveled and trained actor who inhabits the Chief’s secret savvy and sense of pride and anguish all at once.

Rico Bruce Wade doubles as Dr. Spiey and Aide Turkel. Destiny Dunn doubles as Nurse Flynn and Party Girl Sandra. Vaughan Kelsey Davis is Aide Warren and David Guster is Aide Williams.

Besides the set design, lighting design by Chelsea McPhilmy is a prominent part of the experience. Lighting had to be coordinated to light the plexiglass box, which included fluorescent lights that flickered on just as they would in an institutional setting. Great detail. Projection design by Alison Dobbins created sequences of thoughts and daydreams inside the heads of patients after they took meds or just as they let their minds travel to a different place. Eddie Mineishi is sound designer. Katherine Nelson is costume designer. Sarah Briggs is Prop Designer. Tracy L. Spada is stage manager.

Director Michael Lluberes doesn’t mess around, especially when it comes to set design. Play after play, Lluberes leads a re-imagining of his sets, challenging his space and audiences. It has given his actors a fresh canvas on which to paint their characters that they, and we, have probably seen many times before.

Sadly, this Cuckoo’s Nest had its run cut short by the Corona Virus. But even on the Saturday night before most shows closed, and we all went into the current state we are in, some 70 patrons got to see this superb production.