Theater Review: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest at After Hours Theatre Company

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Photo Credit: KJ Knies

Before you even enter the building for After Hours Theatre Company’s immersive production of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, the experience begins. As you check in, you are asked to fill out an intake form that asks a few general questions about your health. Has your sleep been disturbed lately? Do you have any specific fears? Do you ever see things that aren’t there? You are then “admitted” to the psychiatric ward, handed hospital gowns to don, and ushered into the sprawling space at Six 01 Studios in Burbank. Most patients immediately proceeded to the bar to receive their “prescriptions” before kicking off the experience with an immersive pre-show.

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Photo Credit: KJ Knies

Depending on your comfort level with immersion, there are two experiences offered—”chronic” patients have a fairly traditional viewing experience, seated on benches to either side of the room, while “acute” patients are moved around throughout the play, sitting at tables with the cast members and sometimes being called upon to participate in various ways, perhaps playing basketball with the other patients or sitting in a circle as part of a group therapy session. Everyone has the option of exploring the ward during the pre-show, performing activities such as a scavenger hunt and interacting with the cast members, or you can easily just hang back near the “pharmacy” enjoying libations.

Based on the novel by Ken Kesey, the play version of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest was adapted by Dale Wasserman and first premiered on Broadway in 1963. The story is slightly condensed for the stage, but all of the key moments remain intact. Randle P. McMurphy (Paul Stanko at the performance attended), a larger-than-life troublemaker who faked mental illness in order to serve his sentence for battery and gambling at a psych ward as opposed to a work farm, arrives at the hospital. The ward is run by Nurse Ratched (Courtney Lloyd), and everyone, patients and staff alike, are afraid of the “big nurse,” who is cold and quick to order radical treatments for patients who act out of turn, regardless of medical necessity. McMurphy’s presence on the ward irrevocably changes the lives of the other patients, who realize they need not be so passive in accepting the miserable quality of life that exists under Nurse Ratched. He repeatedly clashes with her and tests her authority, and she grows increasingly furious at his often successful attempts to undermine her.

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Photo Credit: KJ Knies

The transformation in the other patients, many of whom are in the ward on a voluntary basis, is evident, as they begin to rediscover their own personalities and sense of free will. One patient, Chief Bromden (Eduardo Fernandez-Baumann), has long been considered a lost cause due to his catatonic behavior, but McMurphy gets him to open up and reveal that he is still able to speak, and think, clearly. Everything comes to a head when McMurphy bribes an orderly and throws an illicit party on the ward, resulting in the tragic death of a fellow patient, Billy (Frank Gullihur) and a violent altercation between McMurphy and Nurse Ratched. The final moments of the story are chilling and tragic—McMurphy receives an entirely unnecessary lobotomy, rendering him a vegetable, but the effects his short time on the ward had on the other patients can never be undone.

It must be mentioned that many aspects of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest are outdated and problematic. In the 60s when the novel was published, it rightly drew attention to the poor practices in many mental hospitals, but depicting treatment facilities and their staff as evil is thankfully now an outdated stereotype, as well as a harmful one that could discourage those in need from seeking medical attention. The portrayal of women is cringeworthy—the only female characters in the story are either prostitutes portrayed solely as sexual objects, or evil women who drive previously healthy men to insanity by being overbearing and manipulative. But despite these antiquated messages, After Hours Theatre Company has managed to create a production that feels fresh and unique, bursting at the seams with creativity.

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Photo Credit: KJ Knies

Directed by Jonathan Muñoz-Proulx, this production makes excellent use of the space, creating a specific atmosphere and experience from moment one. The lighting design (Andrew Schmedake) is as attractive as it is functional, and the cast is truly going above and beyond, with many not even receiving a break in the three hour evening thanks to an immersive intermission. Stanko, who usually plays Scanlon but performed as McMurphy at the performance reviewed, channeled Jack Nicholson’s manic energy, creating a McMurphy who was magnetic and full of life. The production’s largest misstep is that its take on Nurse Ratched, one of literature’s great villains, is not all that, well, villainous. It is easy to see what Lloyd is going for in her portrayal—icy and stoic can certainly be frightening, particularly as the character’s actions grow increasingly more drastic in act two, but the level of menace that is so associated with this iconic character is never quite achieved, and as a result the story feels more unbalanced and uncertain than it should.

It is always exciting to see theater that pushes boundaries and takes risks, and this production is easily amongst the most unique Los Angeles has seen this year. The tone is maintained until the very last second—as you exit the “ward,” a doctor stamps that you are “discharged” on the playbill before handing it to you. Fans of theater, escape rooms, haunted houses, and immersive experiences such as Sleep No More and Delusion will find much to enjoy about this Cuckoo’s Nest, which makes a well-known story feel new again.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest runs through July 8th and has tickets remaining for the final three performances next weekend—Friday and Saturday at 8pm and Sunday at 7pm. The running time is 3 hours—the first half hour is the immersive pre-show experience, and there is one intermission. “Chronic” tickets are $40 and the more immersive “acute” tickets are $55, and both can be purchased here. Guests with mobility concerns are encouraged to opt for the “chronic” experience. For more information, visit cuckoosnestla.com and follow After Hours Theatre on Twitter.

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