Good cast bolsters this `Nest'

Adaptation: The acting is strong, but the Vagabond Players don't really dig deeper into Ken Kesey's `Cuckoo's Nest.'


November 15, 2001|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

Counter-culture guru Ken Kesey died Saturday, and area theatergoers can get a strong sense of his anti-establishment philosophy at the Vagabond Players, where director Barry Feinstein has revived the stage adaptation of Kesey's best-known work, the 1962 novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.

It's a story whose themes - the need to rebel against tyranny and the notion that madmen often are saner than their keepers - are timeless, if not exactly fresh.

When Randle P. McMurphy gets himself transferred to a state mental hospital to escape hard labor on a work farm, he figures he'll have it easy. Despite the chief psychiatrist's insistence that the ward is a democratic "society in miniature," the society in Cuckoo's Nest is soon revealed to be a dictatorship ruled by a despot named Nurse Ratched.

The portrayal of McMurphy is crucial to Cuckoo's Nest, and Mark Squirek pulls it off with just the right mixture of anger, street smarts and attitude. He casts a brown-nosing grin at Nurse Ratched one minute and winks complicitously at his cronies the next. His McMurphy is the kind of overgrown kid who always has to be in charge and always has a scam going.

But McMurphy isn't as bright as he thinks, and Squirek shines in the second act, when the reality of this institution dawns on his character. Here the actor lets us see a tinge of desperation eating away at McMurphy, who's scheming as fast as he can but still can't beat the system.

Director Feinstein has assembled a fine supporting cast, whose varied physical appearance and demeanors enrich Kesey's crazy quilt of mental patients. There's Steven Michael Kovalic as timid Cheswick, who looks hopelessly lost in space; Mike Cookson as Martini, whose squint seems to affect more than his eyesight; and especially Jason Turner as gentle, stuttering Billy Bibbit, an innocent in every sense of the word.

As Nurse Ratched, Amy Jo Shapiro admirably resists the impulse to play the character as a heavy. Hers is a villain who's more quietly manipulative than outwardly nasty. Shapiro makes it easy to see why some patients believe Ratched has their best interests at heart. But overall, the actress' approach is too low-key to make Nurse Ratched's final malicious act credible.

And, as a whole, Feinstein's production lacks urgency. It feels choppy instead of building tension, a shortcoming due in part to the episodic structure of the script, adapted from Kesey's novel by Dale Wasserman.

Kesey refused to see the Academy Award-winning movie made from Cuckoo's Nest, which eliminated the character of the narrator, Chief Bromden. (He also sued the film's producers.) The Vagabonds' production adheres to the novelist's original intent, but few new insights are gleaned from Kesey's cockeyed Cuckoo's Nest - even now, when the world seems madder than ever.

Show times at the Vagabond Players, 806 S. Broadway, are 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays, through Dec. 2. Tickets are $12. Call 410-563-9135.

Holiday lineup

Four years ago, Scott Baker brought his aptly named one-man collection of curiosities, Geek Circus, to the Theatre Project. Now, just in time for the holidays, the New York-based performer is coming back with Mistletoe Madness, a holiday hybrid of music, magic, humor and circus sideshow acts - of which Baker is a real-life veteran.

Among the goodies Baker packs under his holiday tree are a 12-minute, 56-second Christmas Carol, which he calls, "Quicker than the Dickens," and a jazz-accompanied rendition of "The Boy Who Laughed at Santa Claus," by Ogden Nash, who set the poem in Baltimore, where he spent most of his adult life. And oh yes, Baker also will do some fire-eating.

Show times at the Theatre Project, 45 W. Preston St., are 8 p.m. Dec. 7, 9, 14 and 16, and 3 p.m. Dec. 9 and 16. Tickets are $15.

The Theatre Project also is presenting a concert series of seasonal music. Here's the lineup: Sugarplum Faeries (Dec. 1), music by Peabody alum Sarah Blaskowsky and friends; The Niki Lee Christmas Special (Dec. 8), a variety program by the Catonsville singer-songwriter and guests; and Charm City Klezmer (Dec. 15), a Hanukkah concert by the Baltimore-based band. All concerts begin at 8 p.m. Tickets cost $12. Call 410-752-8558 or visit the Web site

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