It’s 1963, and I’m being led through a set of sliding doors at the Oregon State Hospital to my new home. I’m neatly dressed in a dusty blue uniform along with my fellow patients, a nervous grouping of outsiders, unsure of what lies ahead.
I’m not crazy. No more than any other person off the street, I mean. I’m just having a rough time and need some rest, that’s all. I’m here because I want to be. The doors slide shut behind me and I’m in a wide, brightly lit room, peppered with tables and board games and a tall man with a long broom and longer stare. I’m not crazy, but the men at the tables whisper to me that The Big Nurse needs to be taken down; Nurse Ratched needs to be put in her place and it all starts tonight, now that we’re all here. I’m not crazy, but I swear I see a man serving drinks out of a saline drip. I see secret messages hidden in books and on walls and in rooms that shouldn’t exist. But of course I’m not crazy; I’m just part of the show.
This is After Hours Theatre Company’s presentation of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and the floor of the Oregon State Hospital springs to life around me. Director Jonathan Muñoz-Proulx along with Producer/Artistic Director Graham Wetterhahn have mounted Dale Wasserman’s 1963 stage adaptation; re-shaping both the original novel and Milos Forman’s subsequent well-loved film into an invigorating production where immersive theatre fans and traditional theatre-goers can allow themselves to be pulled into author Ken Kesey’s damaged world. “Take a seat,” the nurses gently ask, and I do; I’m home, after all. I’ve been welcomed to the ward.
After Hours, best known for producing the Ovation-nominated Dogfight and I Love You Because, toes the line between a truly immersive production and a standard stage play with One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest; immersive theatre veterans will be pleased to find an interactive story, engaging characters, and an extraordinary attention to world-building and set design while those looking for a more straightforward story will enjoy the presentation of the main event.
The pre-show in particular, with its clever mystery game (the completion of which ties wonderfully in with the start of the play itself) themed drinks from Spirit Guides Cocktails, and opportunities to explore is an ambitious approach to the source material and an excellent way to on-board the audience. Immersive designer Sara Beil truly has an adept eye for what fans of that genre are looking for as participants. The pre-show is well worth the ticket price alone; each member of the cast is truly committed to their role, and the ensuing stage play only serves to flesh out each character and bring the audience more completely into their world.
Particularly refreshing is the care taken by the team at After Hours to ensure that each “Acute” patient (the higher-priced, more interactive ticket option) has an opportunity to get as close to the action as possible once the play begins. Some Acutes will be seated along the periphery of the staging area, while others may be invited to take part in day-to-day hospital activities—actively participating as the background to a scene. If this level of interaction does not appeal to a guest, they can instead purchase a “Chronic” ticket and view the show from the stands without interruption, though the Acute experience does not require any direct participation.
Marketing a single experience to two different kinds of fan walks a tricky line: immersive die-hards may find the transition to the sit-down play somewhat tedious after the buzz of the of the pre-show, while proscenium fans may find the pre-show confusing and lengthy. In this case, however, thanks to the production team at After Hours and the dedication of cast members, both sets of fans are likely to leave Cuckoo’s Nest with the sense that they’ve seen a successful, if lengthy coupling of the two styles and an appreciation for how well they mesh together.
Once the proscenium play begins, the many impressive working aspects of the whole production become readily apparent. Unique sound design from Austin Quan, utterly gorgeous lighting from Andrew Schmedake and Ben Vigman, and full use of Victoria Tam’s impressive, detailed set betrays an innovative approach to the a stage-show that both emerging and established creators would do well to consider when building their own performance spaces.
The main show is also where the cast has the opportunity to flex their talents. The action of the whole piece is anchored by the rakish charm of Mick Torres as Randle McMurphy, who displays such a level of overconfidence that the vicious ire he earns from Nurse Ratched is almost understandable. Courtney Lloyd, as Ratched, manages to imbue a character known by so many fans as the ultimate antagonist with just the slightest drop of sympathy, adding the same welcome extra ingredient to the character that Louise Brooks once did in the film adaptation. The quiet intensity of Eduardo Fernandez-Baumann as Chief Bromden drives the action throughout with an inspired portrayal; his Chief is a necessary contrast to McMurphy, and the narrative voice the production needs. Rounding out these notable performances is Frank Guillihur, whose portrayal of Billy Babbit, tortured, shy, held together in scraps, is the brightest spot in an ensemble already built upon stars. The cast also features After Hours alums Harrison Meloney and Trent Mills, who show a particular talent for immersive improvisation during the pre-show, and easily endear themselves to attendees for the duration of the performance.
After Hours Theatre Company has taken a major risk by combining immersive and standard theatre in this fashion, and it’s paid off. They’ve demonstrated an understanding that one theatrical form is truly a relative of the other, and can exist in the same space. In many ways, this juxtaposition channels what being a patient in an institution such as Oregon State Hospital can be like: I enter the ward, not sure what is real, what is performance, not really knowing my next step. Maybe that’s what madness is like; not knowing reality from fiction, but following along anyway. In my story, the show ends, I rise from my seat, take my uniform off, and walk out into the night. Cuckoo’s Nest sticks with me, though, as if Wasserman’s version of the story continues on after I’m gone; those men still numbly flipping through playing cards, dreaming of becoming “well.” Part of me regrets leaving them all behind me. “Call me crazy,” I think. I’m not sure I mind.
After Hours Theatre Company’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest runs through July 1st, 2018 at Six01 Studio. You can purchase tickets ($35-$50) here. For more information about After Hours, you can follow them on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram.