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Center Stage

It’s McMurphy Against the Machine in ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’

1/29/2014

“Aggressive.” That’s the word Tim Wisgerhof uses to describe his set for “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” The designer imagined a sort of “machine” that was “chewing into the audience,” which is why he skewed the hospital setting to one side so an extension of the stage thrusts out into the auditorium. When director Ron Ziegler calls the effect “disquieting,” he means it as a compliment.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest shows at the Des Moines Community Playhouse, Jan. 31-Feb. 16, at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday and 2 p.m. on Sunday.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest shows at the Des Moines Community Playhouse, Jan. 31-Feb. 16, at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday and 2 p.m. on Sunday.

These two have worked together a number of times, including other occasions when Wisgerhof served as both designer and actor, as he’s doing for “Cuckoo’s Nest.” But his challenge this time seems especially steep. He’s not just breaking down the Fourth Wall but also playing Randle Patrick McMurphy, the role that won Jack Nicholson the 1975 Oscar. With a history like that, any production needs to get aggressive.

Not that the Playhouse version strays from the story’s base. It’s still working with the inmates of an asylum, circa 1962, the year of Ken Kesey’s novel (Dale Wasserman’s stage adaptation features the ’63 World Series, prominently). When Ziegler and Wisgerhof refer to the set as a “cage” — it’s covered with security mesh — you can’t help but think of a cage match, pitting the rebel McMurphy against the repressive Nurse Ratched. This core conflict, however, has been refreshed.

“A good production needs to be organic,” Ziegler said. “Cast and company have to create the tensions anew.”

Along with an original set design, then, he arranged for original music. Tracking down the Tennessee composer Joe Payne, he elicited a score that incorporates both Native American flute, perfect for the soliloquies of Chief Bromden, to what Ziegler terms “machine metal.” Besides that, rather than laying out the blocking beforehand, the director invited everyone to experiment together with where they should stand and move during each scene. The group work left its mark on the final ebbing and flowing across the stage — or is it cage?

Either way, ensemble involvement is crucial to this production — one that works, you could say, against the movie. With Nicholson’s ’75 over-the-top performance a gender war was created — Good Man vs. Bad Woman — and this gave rise to complaints that the story was misogynist. Zeigler and Wisgerhof deny the charge wholeheartedly. Rather, as Wisgerhof argues, Kesey and Wasserman sought to dramatize “a struggle for control that affects all relationships, all individuals.” Race issues, too, embodied by two black hospital orderlies, are part of that struggle, and the cuckoo’s nest is wound together from many disparate elements of community. As Ziegler puts it, all the inmates benefit from McMurphy’s sacrifice: “He makes himself small, so others — especially the Chief — may become big.”

If that sounds like a parable, neither Wisgerhof nor Ziegler object. For them this isn’t a drama about a superman, but about an “ordinary Joe” struggling to free his fellows. The ordinary playgoer, coming into the house, will confront the same nightmare as the sufferers onstage: a “machine” that threatens to swallow them up. CV

John Domini is Cityview’s “Play Mate” theater critic who pens our weekly Center Stage column. He is a published local author who has lived on both coasts and abroad and enjoyed theater everywhere. See www.johndomini.com.

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