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Same inmates, different asylum in this 'Nest'

July 23, 2004|F. Kathleen Foley; David C. Nichols; Daryl H. Miller; Rob Kendt

There's a fine but firmly drawn line between directorial innovation and excess. In an otherwise formidable staging of "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" at the beautifully renovated Barnum Hall Theater on the campus of Santa Monica High, Frank X. Ford occasionally blurs that distinction.

Set in a mental institution, "Nest" is a countercultural parable that illustrates how individual expression is suppressed and ultimately destroyed by an inimical system. Coldly received when first produced on Broadway in 1963, Dale Wasserman's play, based on the Ken Kesey novel, was arguably ahead of its time. By 1975, when Milos Forman's landmark film hit theaters, corruption-weary audiences were ready to take note.

But whereas Kesey's novel and previous adaptations took aim at Big Government, this rendition -- the inaugural production of the Santa Monica Civic Light Opera's Viking Underground -- is gunning for Big Business in a big way. No shambling, rumpled lunatics, these. Clad in drab business suits, the inmates punch a time clock as they enter the ward's common room. A sign proclaiming "Combine Industries" is further indication that this particular institution has been privatized with a vengeance.

Into this sterile arena bursts the colorful R.P. McMurphy (Ryan Douglas Hurst), a rollicking free spirit who is soon scrapping with the famously sadistic Nurse Ratched (Cynthia Marty) -- a battle he cannot hope to win, despite the sympathetic support of the institution's head doctor (Stuart Damon).

Lavish production elements include Mike Goode's incredibly detailed set and wonderful video sequences by Psychic Bunny. Indeed, despite its showy revisionist flourishes, this massive production is consummately realized in most particulars. Hurst is superb as McMurphy, as is David Wells as the cerebrally effete Harding. However, under Ford's tutelage, Marty lacks the emotional levels that could have largely redressed the blatant misogyny of the material -- a crucial shortcoming.

-- F. Kathleen Foley

"One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest," Barnum Hall Theater, 601 Pico Blvd., on the campus of Santa Monica High School. 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays; 7 p.m. Sundays; also 2 p.m. July 31. Ends July 31. $20-$25 (310) 458-5939. Running time: 3 hours.

*

Debauchery with a Tanner touch

Prurient zingers sustain "Wife Swappers" at Third Stage in Burbank. Writer-director Justin Tanner's new play guts conservative repression with lewd hilarity, albeit in too small a package.

It concerns the regular revels hosted by Jake (Jonathan Palmer) and Lorette (Ellen Ratner) in their Orange County home, sharply depicted by James Henriksen's setting. Neophytes Paul (Todd Lowe) and his hesitant wife, Karen (Victoria Prescott), arrive from Sherman Oaks, followed by rampant hedonists Mac and Gina (Henriksen and Maile Flanagan). Jovial dominatrix Shirl (Jodi Carlisle) and Paul's uninvited buddy, Roy (Mark Fite), complete the debauched lineup.

By NC-17 standards, "Wife Swappers" is less scandalous than salacious.

Still, the contradictions beneath the ongoing offstage orgy emerge in wild satiric dialogue as motorized as it is unprintable.

What moves this past mere smuttiness is Tanner's distinctive ability to find characters in archetypes, and his matchless ear for the cadences of Southern California, which often scalds.

The expert cast is an invaluable asset. Palmer and Ratner convey roiling discontent beneath their grinning benevolence. Lowe and Prescott fully inhabit the newbies, while Henriksen and Flanagan gobble their rip-roaring ribaldry.

Carlisle and Fite, the catalytic converters of Tanner's social comment, steal it outright.

Less successful is Tanner's one-act format, which stymies the intended ironic effect. The revelations and outbursts feel perfunctory, lacking foreshadowing amid the foreplay and sufficient narrative development to land the pathetic denouement.

Given the gasps and guffaws at the reviewed performance, an audience exists for a full-length "Wife Swappers," but the sector it hectors is unlikely to recognize itself in these self-deluded swingers.

-- David C. Nichols

"Wife Swappers," Third Stage, 2811 W. Magnolia Blvd., Burbank. 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays. Ends Aug. 21. Mature audiences. $18. (818) 842-4755. Running time: 1 hour

*

A few feet short of two yards

Two years ago, late-night audiences at the Evidence Room met Hildy Hildy, a beret-wearing haiku poet who swathed herself in black (a symbol, perhaps, for the black clouds that seemed to perpetually surround her) and wore clunky, thick-soled shoes (emblematic of her tendency to clomp ungracefully through life).

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