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Freefall Theatre puts audiences in the middle of 'One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest'

Larry Alexander (Harding), left, Michael Nichols (Chief Bromden), Steve Garland (Dr. Spivey), Roxanne Fay (Nurse Ratched) and James Oliver (McMurphy) star in Freefall Theatre’s production of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, which puts the audience right in the middle of the tale of mental patients.
Larry Alexander (Harding), left, Michael Nichols (Chief Bromden), Steve Garland (Dr. Spivey), Roxanne Fay (Nurse Ratched) and James Oliver (McMurphy) star in Freefall Theatre’s production of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, which puts the audience right in the middle of the tale of mental patients.
Published Jul. 28, 2014

ST. PETERSBURG

There's something about a circle. It's clean and complete. You're either in or out, unless something threatens to break it.

And there's nothing like a circle to get people talking.

So we sat in a circle on the stage at Freefall Theatre talking about the production of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, what the story about institutionalized mental patients meant then, what it means now.

It was easy to imagine we weren't really on stage, though. We were in the day room at the hospital, in the group therapy circle, in what author Ken Kesey calls the Combine. And there was McMurphy, and there was Big Nurse and behind us the nurse's eerie glass station and below us someone mopping the floor.

Encircling the stage were chairs, the kind of crushed velvet loungers you could drape a leg from and ruminate, and the kind of orange vinyl cafeteria chairs you'd fall into rank-and-file, if the right person told you to do it.

That's where the audience will sit during the play's monthlong run at Freefall, which opens Saturday at the theater in St. Petersburg. In those chairs. In the muck. In the circle.

It's "this idea of placing the audience kind of cruelly in the middle of the action in a time and a place that's not fun to be plopped down in the middle of," said Eric Davis, Freefall's artistic director, who is also directing Cuckoo's Nest. "And that of course is very fun, to kind of take the adventure of that. To be placed in this imaginary time and place and see where your suspension of disbelief gives way."

Freefall, one of Tampa Bay's most innovative professional theater companies, has tackled immersive staging before. They did it with The Wild Party in 2008, which had the Studio@620 transformed into a Jazz Age fete with libations, sofas and actors performing on the floor at the feet of the audience.

And they did it with Man of La Mancha in 2011, also written by Cuckoo's Nest playwright Dale Wasserman, placing the audience in a graffiti-stained Latin American junk yard bound up in chain link. Audience members sat on ledges or around a large King Arthur table.

Cuckoo's Nest also offers what the crew jokingly calls "the chicken seats," traditional chairs near the back. Davis knows not everyone will want to be in the middle, even though there will be no crowd participation, and no one will be put on the spot.

That's not really the point, anyway. The idea of true immersion is more nuanced, Davis learned through experimentation. And Cuckoo's Nest felt like it could stand up to that.

"I think there's a certain quality to the audience feeling akin to the person and rallying behind that person," he said. "Feeling like they're part of the revolution."

• • •

Most people know Cuckoo's Nest the book or Cuckoo's Nest the movie. The play, released between the two, didn't get such popular legs until later.

James Oliver read the book in high school but was only 10 when he saw the film.

"I saw a lot of independent cinema from the '70s," said Oliver, who has the lead role in Freefall's production. "I was very lucky to have parents, especially my father, who exposed me to great cinema, and it just really struck a chord with me."

Jack Nicholson's Randle McMurphy, a convict sent to serve the rest of his sentence in the hospital, is entrenched in Oliver's brain. The challenge for him was bringing the character to a place that felt fresh to audiences years later.

"I've seen the movie so many times that when Eric approached me to do the part, there was no question except how to erase my memory of the film, which has been an interesting process in itself," he said. "This production and this particular cast and doing it in 2014 changes so much of it."

Kesey's Cuckoo's Nest was published in 1962, during burgeoning movements in civil rights and mental health care. Kesey spent time working in a state institution and also participated in military drug experiments, which helped hone the novel's themes of discovering individualism.

Wasserman's stage adaptation came to Broadway just a year after the book, starring Kirk Douglas and Gene Wilder. But a whole 12 years passed until the movie was made.

The play lives somewhere between the two, bridging the formats of the novel and the film. For one, it reinstates Chief Bromden as narrator, a vehicle the movie eliminated.

The movie won all five major Academy Awards in 1976, including one for Louise Fletcher's Nurse Ratched. The performance was so wrought with icy tyranny and full silences, Fletcher herself said in 2012 that she couldn't watch anymore.

"I find it too painful," Fletcher said to the Associated Press. "It comes with age. I can't watch movies that are inhumane."

Roxanne Fay, who recently gave an exhaustive performance as Dr. Emma Brookner in Freefall's The Normal Heart, is playing Ratched. She draws from Fletcher and Amy Morton, who played Ratched in Steppenwolf Theatre Co.'s 2001 Broadway revival. Fay was taking an intensive workshop at Steppenwolf at the time and saw the play as often as she could.

For all Ratched's faults, her obsession with order and power, her willingness to resort to humiliation and cunning, Fay also sees Ratched with a sympathetic eye.

"She's pretty amazing," she said. "She's an incredibly resilient woman. I think she's absolutely running a man's world. And in a sense she's given up a great deal of herself, who she is as a woman, to do this job. But she absolutely is committed to these men, to their well-being, to their cure. They are her brood. She calls them her boys. And anything that threatens them will have a very adverse reaction."

• • •

If we were in a physical circle, we were also in a metaphorical one.

The Combine. It's what keeps audiences coming back to the story more than 50 years later.

"The Combine still exists, and may be more powerful now than it was then," Davis said. "The Combine being this metaphor in the piece for the machine of society, the machine of corporate America and this negative expression of the superego that's constantly trying to make us stand in line and all face one direction and do as we're told. And this piece definitely challenges that power system. … And it really asks, how much are you willing to sacrifice?"

When Milos Forman took the job directing the film in the 1970s, people told him not to. How could Forman, an immigrant from Czechoslovakia, relate to such an American story?

"To me it was not just literature but real life … " Forman wrote in a 2012 New York Times column. "The Communist Party was my Nurse Ratched, telling me what I could and could not do; what I was or was not allowed to say; where I was and was not allowed to go; even who I was and was not."

Everyone has a circle they want to break, whether it's social or religious or political, or even in your own family dynamic. That's why Davis believes people will turn out to place themselves in the middle of a mental ward, to watch what happens when McMurphy tries to break the circle open.

"What happens to him is not in vain, because of what he does for the rest of the men in the ward," Davis said. "You see where they begin the piece. They're just in this spinning repetition of things with no sense that any of this can change. And he shows them a different path."

Contact Stephanie Hayes at shayes@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8716. Follow @stephhayes.

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