SF Playhouse's 'One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest' Is a Worthy Adaptation

Photo: Fun and games. Hansford Prince, Gilberto Esqueda, Joe Madero and Louis Parnell star in the stage version of Kesey's famous novel.
Evan Walbridge/Photo
Fun and games. Hansford Prince, Gilberto Esqueda, Joe Madero and Louis Parnell star in the stage version of Kesey's famous novel.

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Ken Kesey's "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" is not unlike Shakespeare's canon. Of course, Kesey is no Bard, but Tupac was no Beethoven, either. The modern guys need to endure a few more centuries to claim that status and, besides, modern styles are different from classics anyway. It's an unfair comparison, stylistically.

But what about that double negative? When you see a Shakespeare play, you're not expecting anything too new in the story. Maybe scenes are eliminated or language is simplified, but the plot remains the same. In "Cuckoo's Nest," it's hard to change things like the setting or the costumes when the play takes place in a hospital, yet Kesey's book has gone through many iterations on stage and screen. Simply put, "Cuckoo's Nest" is Shakespearean in its strength to survive these interpretations and convey Kesey's message consistently. The version currently playing at the SF Playhouse does just that with only a few minor twitches.

If you've never been to the Playhouse, you might miss it. The slight street entrance leads you down a dark hallway, up some steep stairs and right into a waiting room for both the theater and a conveniently stashed nail salon. It's weird but oddly charming, as Playhouse supporters have formed a community, greeting each other-get this-as if they hang out outside the theater.

Inside, space is scarce even for the audience; the theater seats 100 with almost no legroom. But the 14-member cast works around the restrictions well, though the stage seems to be built for half as many actors. The set looks like an actual hospital with sterile revolving doors, feeble plants outside the windows and a pathetic TV. The costumes drive the point home, too. Each patient adorns his grey scrubs with his own piece of flair. For Randle P. McMurphy (Hansford Prince), a flat cap. For Dale Harding (Louis Parnell), a cardigan. For Scanlon (Brian Raffi), a beanie.

But on the whole there is a shortage of individuality, as the story indicates, and the actors play out the paradox beautifully. In the lead, Prince, though lacking that Nicholsonian twinkle in his eye, carries the role with his own brand of infectious laughter and charm. Patrick Alparone perfects Billy's heartbreaking stutter. Raffi is most impressive in the background, fiddling constantly with his "bomb kit." And watch out for Gilberto Esqueda as Martini, whose howling laugh pays obvious tribute to Tom Hulce's portrayal of Mozart in the 1984 film "Amadeus."

The real standout is Michael Torres as Chief Bromden. His soliloquies-part hallucination, part narration and part distraction for set changes-are cryptic and moving. Even in his character's deaf-and-dumb act, he moves with pained effort, exuding the torment of a man who's heard and seen too much. And when he finally speaks, his words are tinged with fear, causing all-too-real panic attacks and fits of violence.

With such powerful performances from the patients, it's disappointing to watch Nurse Ratched (Susi Damilano) underwhelm alongside them. Damilano turns Ratched into a woman who commands almost none of the attention and respect described in Kesey's novel. Ratched should embody the message: She is the authority to overthrow and the perpetuator of the patients' insanity. Instead, Damilano gives her a robotic yet meek demeanor that undermines the play's infamous "Damn the Man!" undertone. Since there is no threatening Man to Damn, the patients' rebellious behavior toward her seems contrived.

Even with this setback, Kesey's message still remains intact. Here's hoping he gets his own class in the English department in a couple hundred years.

Laugh like Mozart in "Amadeus" with Stefanie at [email protected]

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