Samuel Beckett once wrote “nothing is funnier that unhappiness.” This is true, but only up to a certain point when one sees the extreme sadness and bleak, but beautiful, human nature portrayed in the adaptation of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” by the Cal Poly theatre and dance department.
The two-act tragicomedy opened Nov. 15 in the Spanos Theatre. It will run until Saturday, Nov. 18, with a matinee on Sunday. The 17-member cast acts out in a surreal version of the novel by Ken Kesey.
Cal Poly theatre professor Al Schnupp directed the work in part because he picks plays that speak to him, but it also has a deeper meaning.
“I was intrigued by the Indian’s story; how he was exploited by the government.” he said. “The meaning of the play is how the government can take things away.”
The Indian he refers to is “Chief Bromden,” played by theatre and liberal studies senior Lester Wilson. This lead character provides a serious, dark underbelly to the external humor as acted by the other mental patients.
Sporadically throughout the play, Chief’s soliloquies are framed in dark blue and green lights, while the rest of the stage remains inky black. It is during these monologues that the audience truly sees his desperation.
Fans of the 1975 film with the same title remember the antics of Randle P. McMurphy and his clashing with the “seeming-to-be-good-but-really-evil” Nurse Rached. In Schnupp’s version, that relationship still exists. Cuesta College sophomore Bryon Anthony and Poly theatre senior Tanner Agron play the parts, respectively.
Anthony adds a bit of Biff Tannen (Back to the Future) to the character of McMurphy. He takes on the role with a stress-voiced, sexually charged, comedic anger that works well. Agron’s Rached is a stoic-faced, monotone bitter nurse doing her job to “make the patients lives better.” She is often slow-speaking, ending each sentence with a condescending question and sly, dark smile. By the end of the play, Nurse Rached is the most despised character.
The entire play is done on a post-modern stage. The nurses’ station is a combination of lifeguard lookout and prison guard tower raised above a surrealistic white and gray stage. Other than a few props and numerous chairs, the stage is bare but the emotional acting of the patients more than makes up for the empty stage.
The mixture of comedy, anger, human dignity and surrealism last the entire two hours, but the audience is so engrossed in the plot that real time ceases to exist. Towards the climax at the end of the play, the crowd is unsure how to respond. Cries and gasps, even small bits of laughter, are sprinkled throughout the theater.
The most meaningful scene, maybe the most tragic, is a dialogue between McMurphy and Chief. The two are doused in dim blue light and discussing the outside world. The realness of the characters is seen in their naked, stripped-down emotions. It makes the entire play have a more realistic aspect.
Schnupp said he wants the audience to not just come for the play itself, but for a general appreciation for live performance and the sense of community he said exists with all members of the audience as they watch a story unfold together.
“I hope people are entertained,” he said. “I hope we can play all the strings of their emotions; from horror to joy to sadness and beauty.”
For ticket information call (805) 756-2787 or visit www.pacslo.org.
Nick Coury is a freelance arts writer and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.