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Loony Bins 

Milos Forman's 1975 movie version of Ken Kesey's novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest won five Oscars: Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Director and Best Screenplay (adapted). That's quite a pedigree. Dale Wasserman's play recently was presented at True Brew. I haven't seen the movie. But, for me, at the True Brew, the creaking gears of a manipulative script almost succeed in overwhelming the determined efforts of a skillful and dedicated cast. Hardcore fans of the Kesey saga (and they are legion) will no doubt find the show both poignant and uplifting, even though Kesey himself hated the film version.

The story, for anyone who has not yet heard, concerns one R.P. "Mac" McMurphy. He was, we learn, a war hero, but now is a hell-raiser. A courageous, antiauthoritarian, heavy-drinking, don't-give-a-f--k, life-spirit kind of guy. Well, McMurphy is committed to a state mental hospital (which he sees as an easy out, since he would otherwise be doing time in jail). The ward is inhabited by a gang of likable loonies, some catatonic, some delusional, some merely neurotic.

Overseeing their lives is Nurse Ratchet. Although her name calls up visions of restoration comedy, she is more like a concentration camp matron. Dr. Freud would no doubt have much to say about this omnipotent vagina dentata and her infantilized brood of impotent males. In any case, it doesn't take a genius to see that Mr. Life-Spirit with his pack of dirty playing cards, his gambling and his braggadocio is going to knock heads with Nurse Ratchet. He takes a bet that he can get her goat -- although it's very unclear what will decide the bet. And then he sets about being more obnoxious than usual. Nurse Ratchet puts up with a great deal of provocation. At last, she browbeats the insipid, ineffectual male doctor (who seems to dote on McMurphy) into subjecting their rebellious patient to electrical shock treatment as a punishment.

Next, McMurphy learns he can't leave the asylum without Nurse Ratchet's approval, since the doctor is too weak to stand up to her. So the bad boy swallows his pride and behaves for a while. But then he decides what he really wants to do is have a big drunken party in the ward, with his floozie girlfriends (despite the fact that he lives under the threat of a lobotomy). The drunken party is suitably orgiastic. McMurphy is busted. He is lobotomized. His noble American Indian friend suffocates him as a kind of mercy killing and then escapes into the night.

At the True Brew, all this takes place in a striking, white-tiled, total environment (by David Raphel). Under Dane Rhodes' direction, the gang of likable loonies is brought to life with panache. Cheswick (Bill Dykes) and Martini (Travis Acosta) -- with tics enough for the Royal Museum of Chronometry -- create a basso continuo of madness in the grand Marat/Sade tradition. John Kelly gives us an impressively believable Chief Bromden, the silent American Indian giant who is obsessed with visions of a vast technological brainwashing conspiracy (as articulated through voice-overs by musician/poet Rev. Goat Carson). Jerry Lee Leighton's Harding, the intellectual leader of the ward, is assured and convincing. Gary Rucker's Billy Bibbit, a stuttering, timorous soul, has the most touching moment of the show, when he caves in and betrays his friend out of an all-engrossing terror of his mother.

The main event, of course, is Life-Force vs. Matriarch. And both the champ (Ratchet) and the contender (McMurphy) are up for the match. Bob Scully's McMurphy has the requisite grit and effrontery, and he gains in stature as doom closes in on him -- which I suppose is one of the main points of the tale. Jan Chimento's Ratchet has a grim, unpleasant, implacable assurance.

Meanwhile, there's an interesting development in this city famously short of theatrical venues. Jim Walker's production of Lonely Sister Praying for an Astronaut, an original by Shane Stewart, is running at Rosy's Jazz Hall, in Uptown on Tchoupitoulas and Valence streets. The play, a nonlinear, symbolic fantasia about violence in a low-rent, highly dysfunctional family, features solid performances by Jesse Lee, Scott Theriot and Jack Long and a tasteful score from Big Blue Marble Band. What's real? What's illusion? Are the brother and sister two aspects of the same person? Was the mother hanged by the son? Did the father cut her into pieces? These and such like conundrums are the stuff this dream is made of. Too long by half, the script has some intriguing moments.

click to enlarge Jesse Lee and Scott Theriot deliver solid - performances in Shane Stewart's Lonely Sister - Praying for an Astronaut, at Rosy's Jazz Hall.
  • Jesse Lee and Scott Theriot deliver solid performances in Shane Stewart's Lonely Sister Praying for an Astronaut, at Rosy's Jazz Hall.


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