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New Orleans’ fall theater season opens 

Will Coviello on One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Le Petit Theatre’s Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike

click to enlarge The NOLA Project begins its season with One Flew
Over the Cuckoo's Nest.

The NOLA Project begins its season with One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.

I have a lot of sympathy for Nurse Ratched," says actress Amy Alvarez, who also is a licensed clinical social worker. "She's trying to help these guys. I wouldn't say she's following best practices."

  In the NOLA Project's production of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Alvarez plays Nurse Ratched, a character immortalized as a controlling and vindictive mental health care provider in the film version of Ken Kesey's novel. Alvarez's Ratched is gentler, but still a strong and insistent force in the lives of a group of men hospitalized with a range of generally acute mental disorders. She gently guides group therapy sessions, probing Harding's (AJ Allegra) anxieties about his buxom young wife and Billy Bibbit's stuttering and lack of self-esteem. Ratched has institution employees and patients coexisting in relative peace and striving to address their own issues until Randle McMurphy (Alex Martinez Wallace) enters and his disruptions question the distinctions between mental illness, anti-social behavior and free will, and guidance, control and manipulation.

  Director Milos Forman's 1975 movie version starred Jack Nicholson and swept the top Oscars (best film, director, actor, actress and screenplay), but the film's distinct take on the story was different from Kesey's 1962 novel and the stage adaptation Dale Wasserman premiered in 1963. (Broadway revivals featured impressive casts, including Gary Sinise and Kirk Douglas as McMurphy, and Gene Wilder as Bibbit.)

  The NOLA project opens its 10th season with Mark Routhier directing Wasserman's version, which opens Thursday at NOCCA's intimate Nims Theater. Le Petit Theatre du Vieux Carre opens its season with Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, and in the next week, local theaters across town kick off their 2014-2015 seasons.

  The NOLA Project is making a tradition of starting its season with a large ensemble piece. Last year, it opened with the premiere of Jim Fitzmorris' award-winning play about a local newspaper's decline, A Truckload of Ink. In 2012, it presented Balm In Gilead, also directed by Routhier and featuring a cast of more than 20. Cuckoo's Nest's cast of 16 includes Alvarez, in her first production with the NOLA Project, Allegra, Wallace, Mike Harkins, Michael Aaron Santos, Richard Pomes, James Bartelle, Keith Claverie, Kyle Daigrepont and others. The drama has been on NOLA Project's mind for a while, says artistic director Allegra.

  "Alex wanted to do it since we founded the company," Allegra says. "We were always like, 'You're too young.' But it's been on our bucket list for a while. It's an American classic."

  In the play, McMurphy arrives at the institution after pleading that he has mental health problems, which keeps him from a sentence on a work farm. He immediately sets out to intimidate the other men, including the towering but mute Chief Bromden (Santos). He cajoles the group into gambling with him and sneers at what he sees as their unmanliness and acquiescence to the hospital's regimen. He doesn't care how he gets what he wants, whether through charm, argument, bullying, bribery or physical intimidation. He's not interested in other points of view and he has no remorse.

  "He fits the description of an antisocial personality disorder," Alvarez says.

  According to the text, all the men exhibit traits that fit certain diagnoses, she says. Attitudes and mental health treatment have changed greatly since the book was written, she adds.

  The story is set in a hospital, but the men all deal with real conflicts and the issues are social and political. Chief Bromden is a Native American whose family was shattered when his father became the chief caught between the government and his tribe in a settlement over land and money. Many of the men are cowed by the pressures of daily life. McMurphy is a complicated figure who's shrewd, selfish, independent and given to resisting or antagonizing authority figures.

  "It has a tireless story that maintains its urgency over the course of time. ... [A]bout a guy who's trying to get everyone to be free," Routhier says. "Alex isn't trying to recreate an iconic performance by Kirk Douglas or Jack Nicholson. He's doing it the way he interprets it. I agree with that. Let's see what the people in this room do with the work. It's jumped off the page for me."

  At Le Petit Theatre, the season opener is the 2013 Tony Award-winning play about three aging siblings. Steeped in theatrical context, characters get their names from Chekhov characters, and two siblings who have lived their lives together in their parents' home face change. Their sister Masha (played by Le Petit director Cassie Steck Worley) has supported them through her successful acting career. Her wilder life includes cavorting with the much younger Spike, but loyalty isn't one of his virtues.

  "Masha has wonderful energy, but she's very self-absorbed," Worley says. "The comedy comes out of the competitive spirit between siblings."

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