One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest – April 2017

The fine print – “Parental Advisory: Due to strong language and adult themes, parental discretion is advised. No person 14 or under will be admitted without a guardian’s permission.”

Because I have the short-term memory of a goldfish, I can’t remember how I heard about the Boston Children’s Theatre’s production of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. But as soon as I realized it was a children’s theater group putting on the production, I knew I had to see it. How do you not check out a children’s theater group producing Cuckoo’s Nest?

I’ve read the book multiple times and I’ve seen the movie too many times to count but I had never seen it performed on stage. The original stage play is the all-time favorite of my mother. She saw it when it was in previews in Boston back in 1963 with original cast members (among others) Kirk Douglas, Ed Ames and Joan Tetzel (I’ve apparently inherited my memory from her as she didn’t remember she had also seen Gene Wilder in this same show). Because she worked at the theater, she was able to watch it over and over. When I relayed my experience on the BCT’s version she could recite the play almost word by word. I’ve grown up hearing how amazing this play was and decided I would take the opportunity to find out for myself – even if it was probably going to be the “junior” version of the show.

Except…it wasn’t.

The cast was comprised of high school students and college students. McMurphy was played by 21 year-old actor Sam Mulcahy and Nurse Ratched by 18 year-old Teresa Gelsomini. The rest of the cast was a mix of high school students and college-aged actors. I hope to see both Mulcahy and Gelsomini in future productions. They might be young but they commanded the stage every moment they were on it.

As far as a review, all I can say is I found it quite brilliant. While definitely curious as to how a children’s theater group would be able to pull off this show, I didn’t have high hopes. I was expecting a high school production. A lot of over-emoting or mumbling with actors missing their marks and cues while laughing at their mistakes. I was so far off it’s embarrassing.

Prior to the beginning of the play, one of the directors (whose name is unfortunately escaping me) of the BCT came out to thank the audience and also warn them. We were told this wasn’t the junior version of Dale Wasserman’s play; they worked off the full, original, script. We were also told explicitly that there would be adult themes, harsh language and nudity (there were also notices all around the theatre that there was nudity. If you were surprised by this when you took your seat you really weren’t paying attention). He also went into detail about how talented the actors were. That the audition process was grueling and that he was certain when the show was over we would agree that there were good reasons each actor was chosen. He wasn’t wrong.

I was disappointed that programs weren’t distributed for the show because 1) given I’m now collecting them it would have been a great souvenir and 2) I really did want to learn more about these actors.

Back in January I went to the theater and saw members of Actor’s Equity in a professional production that I found so terribly acted and directed that I left after intermission. I paid a lot of money to feel like I was sitting through the worst high school drama club production ever made and it was depressing. These young people working with the Boston Children’s Theatre acted circles around those professionals.

Even knowing the story as well as I did, this production made the material fresh. The actors and director deserve immense credit for making this a show I wish I had been able to see more than once (I was at the second to last show of the run).

It wasn’t until a week after the show that a friend pointed out an article describing how the Artistic Director, Burgess Clark, was let go because of controversy surrounding the nude scene. Staff members went on strike and board Members quit over the dispute. Apparently the Board members felt the nudity in the show should have been discussed before it was allowed. A few days after the initial article, the Boston Globe reported that Clark had been reinstated. But the discussion about censorship is still valid.

According to the Globe, two Board members wanted the nude scene taken out but Clark was having none of it:

Clark refused to alter the production. He viewed the nude scene — in which the main character, Randle McMurphy, played by a 21-year-old actor, drops a towel from around his waist to the floor as an act of rebellion against tyrannical Nurse Ratched — as integral to the play. Angered by what he called an attempt at censorship, Clark decided to resign from the post he has held since 2008

It shouldn’t go unmentioned that there is also a scene where McMurphy rips Nurse Ratched’s blouse open and we see her bra-covered breasts. She wasn’t nude but there was plenty of skin. In 2017 it is apparent that a naked man is more offensive to many than a naked or nearly naked woman.

I’ve seen two shows this year where there was male nudity. In neither case was I shocked or offended (and in both instances it was apparent before you even stepped into the theater that you’d be getting an eyeful) nor did anyone in the audience seem bothered. This production was fast-paced and completely riveting. There wasn’t enough time to reflect on seeing a penis in the middle of the chaos.

The Boston Children’s Theatre’s version of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest has reinforced my resolve to attend more local productions with amateur actors. There’s a lot of talent out there and there’s no reason to deny myself the opportunities.

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