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THEATER: Ventura County | THEATER NOTES

Dramatic Power

Well-performed 'Cuckoo's Nest' continues to have impact on audience.

January 29, 1998|TODD EVERETT | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Call it an expose, call it an allegory, but "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" remains a piece of gripping drama. Ken Kesey's novel of life in a Northwestern mental hospital became a hit stage play in 1970 with Dale Wasserman's adaptation; the 1975 film swept the Academy Award categories of film, direction, actor, actress and screenplay. Now playing at the Santa Paula Theater Center in a production directed by Michael Sollazzo, the stage version has lost little of its original impact.

Sollazzo has cast himself as Randall McMurphy, whose prison sentence finds him reassigned to a state mental hospital where he finds the patients a dispirited and unmotivated lot. He attempts to shake them up a bit--much to the dissatisfaction of Nurse Ratched, who for all practical purposes controls the place.

Conditions in the hospital are poor--Nurse Ratched is power-hungry and unfeeling, the doctor purportedly in charge doesn't care, and there's some question of whether several patients should be there at all. Does Kesey mean this to reflect the Human Condition? Is McMurphy a Christ-like figure? Such questions have fueled generations of term papers and are best left to the individual audience member. But even if viewed in a fairly superficial sense, the play is dramatically strong, and quite often amusing.

Sollazzo has played McMurphy before, and it's to his great credit that echoes of Jack Nicholson's definitive performance in the film don't appear more often than they do. Linda Livingston's performance as Nurse Ratched isn't as wild-eyed a piece of villainy as it might be, and her reasonableness increases the horror.

The inmates include Jim Hatch as the group's effete, intelligent leader; Jim Barker as meek Scanlon; M. Lannini as the wired Martini; Jared McVay as working-class Cheswick; and Carl Lithander as the silent Chief Bromden. Billy, the suicidal young man, is played in alternate performances by David DeCuir and (wonderful on the night reviewed) Jared Willis. John McKinley and Bob Decker play the two orderlies almost as a comedy team, and Libby Lazarus is notable as a friend of McMurphy's. Although the performances aren't necessarily uniformly powerful, they're strongest where necessary.

The otherwise anonymous "Zebra Projects" designed the realistic day-room set. It's probably not their fault, but surely someone could have rigged up a more convincing public-address system for the hospital.

* "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" continues through Feb. 22 at the Santa Paula Theater Center, 125 S. 7th St. in Santa Paula. Performances are at 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2:30 p.m. Sundays. Tickets to all performances are $12.50, adults; $10, seniors 55 and older and students; and $6, children 12 and under--though the producers recommend the production for mature audiences. For reservations or further information, call 525-4645.

*

The Conejo Players begin their season with a new version of the play--"Jake's Women"--that the Santa Paula company used to begin its season last September.

Playwright Neil Simon enters Woody Allen territory here, with his writer-hero narrating the story: bringing in figures from the past and present, speaking to them, allowing them to interact with one another, and then shooing them offstage.

One's reaction to any production of the play will depend to a great degree on whether the viewer finds Simon's views and hang-ups to be as universal (or even interesting) as Simon does. Audience members must then be able to relate to his often-dated references: Though "Jake's Women" was first produced and implicitly set in the early '90s, Jake refers twice to lyrics from the 1959 musical "Gypsy" and once to 1966's "Man of La Mancha" (written by Dale Wasserman!).

That noted, the performances under Jere Rae-Mansfield's direction can hardly be faulted, with Scott Mansfield mercifully underplaying Jake's neuroses, and seven impressive actresses portraying the women in his life: Jennie Sine as his present wife (who's threatening to leave); Ann Quintard as his sister; Robyn Saxer and Lisa Gilbar as his daughter at different ages; Lesley Tesh as Jake's first wife, who died young (as did Simon's); Louise Bushnell as his analyst; and Christine Scholle as Jake's newest romantic "prospect."

* "Jake's Women" continues through Feb. 21 at the Conejo Players Theater, 351 S. Moorpark Road in Thousand Oaks. All performances are at 8 p.m. Tickets are $8 Thursday; $10 Friday; and $12 Saturday. Group, senior and student discounts are available. For reservations or further information, call 495-3715.

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