Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Phoenix

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest
Desert Stages Theatre

Also see Gil's reviews of Godspell, Sherlock Holmes: The Final Adventure, The Album Project: Jagged Little Pill, I Get a Kick Out of Cole and Phantom

Desert Stages Theatre in Scottsdale has produced a string of classic dramas and comedies in their intimate Actors Café space to fairly great acclaim. Their latest endeavor is the classic Dale Wasserman play, which is based on the novel by Ken Kesey, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. The intimacy of the company's smaller cabaret-style theatre provides an immediacy with the play's personal moments of pain and suffering.

Set in the 1960s, Randle McMurphy is the newest patient at a mental facility. We quickly learn McMurphy isn't actually crazy but a charming, funny and rebellious prison inmate who pretends to be insane in order to serve out his prison sentence in the mental ward instead of subjecting himself to hard labor at a work farm. When he meets the cold and controlling Nurse Ratched, whom he immediately clashes with, he quickly learns his plan was a mistake. McMurphy finds a connection with many of his fellow residents of the asylum and helps them get better, until he faces the ultimate showdown with Ratched and a heartbreaking ending that is both sad and uplifting.

Trevor Starkey as McMurphy and Shari Watts as Nurse Ratched both give rich performances, though ones with plenty of subtlety. Starkey comfortably portrays the rebellious man who changes everyone's lives in the asylum, for better and worse. His McMurphy exudes the requisite charm used to manipulate his fellow inmates to get what he wants, but also has some heartfelt moments with two of the inmates who require special care. He is appropriately loud and obnoxious but when his fellow inmates inform him that Ratched could keep him there forever, Starkey turns McMurphy's charm to agitation, confusion and fear. Watts is sublime as Ratched, using her sly smile and steady, manipulative voice for intimidation, and in doing so is a force to be reckoned with. Her steely, steadfast, assured walk and chilling smile help her rule with her iron fist. "You must follow the rules" is something she says with that smile and that quiet, subtle voice, and Watts shows us how Ratched controls everyone around her in her desire to keep everything in order.

The ensemble cast includes actors who are using distinct, refined characteristics to make them each individuals. While all are doing good work, especially effective are Scott Hyder as Harding, a man who is voluntarily in the hospital and could leave if he wanted to, but chooses to stay. Hyder appropriately shows Harding's fears of society's perceived rejections of him. Austin Kiehle is giving a harshly realistic portrayal of young patient Billy, an unfortunate young man dominated by his mother, who stutters. His expressions when Ratched talks to him about his mother are perfect. Reginald Graham is quite moving as the paranoid Chief Bromden, the mostly silent man who ends up helping McMurphy, and Omar Zamora is excellent in how he instills the hallucinating Martini with appropriate nervous ticks and expressions.

Director Louis Farber, Stray Cat Theatre's Associate Artistic Director making his DST debut, uses 1960s music to immediately set the time of the play and, even with a large cast of 15, manages to make the very small stage never seem overly packed. He succeeds in getting distinct portrayals from each of his actors but lets subtlety work in his favor in the clashes between McMurphy and Ratched. He also appropriately directs the entire cast, even in scenes where they are just in the background, from the nurses doing busy work at their station toward the back of the stage to the ongoing card games between the patients, to depict normal day to day events at the asylum. Farber also doesn't let the humor of the play get out of hand, thereby not allowing us to laugh at the patients' medical predicaments, but instead laugh with them.

Creative elements are effective, especially Virginia Olivieri's crisp 1960s nurses' outfits and her women's dresses with vibrant, wild patterns.

Unfortunately, while the small space does bring an intimacy to the proceedings, it also means the nurse's station is placed precariously close to the action, instead of being set far back or off to the side. So, the staging of the scenes where Ratched isn't supposed to be aware of or hear certain details of McMurphy's plans is now a bit farfetched, since she is literally just a few feet away.

With the mention of the threat of serious forms of therapy such as shock treatment and frontal lobotomies, Wasserman's play includes some serious stuff, though he adds plenty of humor and comic moments to help balance out the action. In today's world, when so many people are self-medicated and taking many of the same prescription drugs we hear the patients in the play discuss, it is interesting and painful to see how things were in the past. Desert Stages Theatre's production, with Farber's confident direction, is funny and sad, but ultimately moving. And there are two perfectly played performances by Starkey and Watts—just watching the two of them play their sometimes subtle, sometimes full of force, chess game of power is worth the ticket price.

The Desert Stages Theatre production of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest runs through October 26th, 2014, with performances at 4720 N. Scottsdale Road in Scottsdale. Tickets are available at or by phone at (480) 483-1664.

Director: Louis Farber
Stage Manager: Ruth Farber
Set Designer: Paul Filan
Lighting and Sound Designer: Louis Ihrig
Costume Designer: Virginia Olivieri
Props: Tiffany Atkinson, Matthew Villarreal
Hair/Makeup Designer: Joe Navan
Cast: (in order for appearance)
Chief Bromden: Reginald Graham
Aide Williams: Brent Coatney
Aide Warren: Keller Perry
Nurse Ratched: Shari Watts
Nurse Flinn: Valerie German
Dale Harding: Scott Hyder
Billy Bibbit: Austin Kiehle
Cheswick: Wade Moran
Scanlon: Joe Navan
Martini: Omar Zamora
Ruckley: Devon Nickel
Randle P. McMurphy: Trevor Starkey
Dr. Spivey/Aide Turkle: John Mueller
Candy Starr: Kellie Dunlap
Sandra: Raven Woessner

Artwork provided by Wade Moran/Desert Stages Theatre

--Gil Benbrook

Also see the Current Theatre Season Calendar for Phoenix