Let’s start with the obvious.
Tracking the journey of insurrectionary malcontent R.P. McMurphy through Nurse Ratched’s sterile psych ward of broken souls, director Mark Routhier’s “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” was a solid, muscular and intermittently inspired season opener from The NOLA Project.
Featuring a chiller of performance from Amy Alvarez as the diminutive but intimidating Ratched, it boasted generous ensemble work from its entire cast, and on more than one occasion, left this viewer deeply impressed with its visual surety.
If this highly collaborative show had any real star, it was Routhier’s production team. Lighting designer Dan Zimmer, scenic artist Bill Walker and costumer Christopher Arthur all place Dale Wasserman’s adaptation of Ken Kesey’s seminal novel of counter-culture squarely at the unhinged end of The Sixties.
With a groovy assist from Mike Harkins’ acid soaked sound design and Jaime Bird’s location-establishing props such as 1969 editions of Life Magazine, the design team accelerated into the NOCCA Black Box and through the dangers of creating a period piece by exacting such detail that it actually prevented the show from feeling dated.
Essentially, it was everything audiences have come to expect from a troupe who are entering their tenth year riding high on sold out performances and widespread critical acclaim.
Bravo, huzzah, and onward!
It all feels a little easy, doesn’t it?
And that easiness makes me a bit uneasy.
Because while it was an overall compelling evening with much to offer, “Cuckoo’s Nest” was not perfect. And I am not simply talking about a bad wig undercutting a soulful performance by Michael Aaron Santos as Chief Bromden. The show has some intrinsic issues that a little more rehearsals or a minor tweak could not have remedied.
It featured an energetic but erratic performance from its lead Alex Wallace, peaked too soon, and had a cast who, with a few notable exceptions, were all at least five years away from being the right age for their roles.
And those imperfections point to the overall problem with this “Cuckoo’s Nest:” gravity. In more than one crucial moment, the play lacked it both stylistically and emotionally.
By substituting histrionic shouting for genuine emotions like frustration, disappointment and despair, Wallace lacked a devastating resonance in the play’s more quiet passages. By amping up the stakes too early, Routhier diluted the power of the play’s closing frames.
And by failing to project the effects of age and world-weariness on already worn psyches, the cast failed to achieve the sort of synthesis that would’ve staggered all in attendance.
To ground all of that in a more specific way, I am going to focus on a performance that actually produced those missing qualities.
As the doctor ostensibly in charge of the ward, Kyle Daigrepont gave the best turn of the evening. You could see the years of work and dedication in his bearing. Furthermore, in his detached resignation of slumped shoulders and deep sighs, you could see the toll working with mentality disturbed men had taken upon him.
In many way, he is as emotionally and psychologically exhausted as the men for whom he toils.
But when called to summon resistance to Ratched and her obviously unreasonable threat of lobotomy for McMurphy, Daigrepont pulled the best moment of that Sunday. Gathering himself up for battle, he found a gleam in his eye, a stiffness in his spine, and a force to his delivery that had been missing throughout. It felt calculated, decisive, and was the singular moment of the matinee I saw that arrested my attention.
It shut down Alvarez’s Ratched instantly, and we believed it.
You see, as we get older, life plays a nasty trick on us. Just as we are figuring out how to use the body we have been given, it starts to subtly fail in numerous ways. Our back aches, our knees creak, and the desire for rest grows. No longer all powerful twenty-somethings, we become navigators of encroaching age who must pick the exertion of our power wisely lest we squander it on a misguided crusade.
In that moment, we saw in Daigrepont a cagey veteran of such battles understanding the gravity of the situation and bringing a gravity of his own to bear.
And in too many corners of the production, that force was missing. At no time did it occur that the clock is ticking for all these men. Every moment of voluntary confinement takes them away from living the lives that await them in the outside world. The anxiety that their physical, emotional and sexual peaks are slipping away should haunt their every action, movement, and decision throughout the show.
Unlike the tragic Billy Bibbit, these are not men with their whole lives ahead of them, but a group of shattered souls creeping towards middle age. If they do not act soon, the ward will finish off what their fragile minds began.
More problematic is the fact that amidst the praise and ballyhoo no one has seemed to point out that New Orleans’ audiences and its critical apparatus have confused basic professionalism with perfection. And that does not bode well for our local scene.
Of course, I am thrilled everyone performing in the play knows the play, delighted the cast has an excellent sense of storytelling, and pleased as punch that its director understands the key to blocking in a thrust is to keep the actors moving and working on different sight lines.
I am equally over the moon that good enough is not enough for The NOLA Project’s production team.
After all when good enough is the gold standard, missing that mark even by a little a bit can be a disaster for its audiences (see: Long Day’s Journey Into Night, Bug, Bent, A Lie of The Mind, and any other great play chosen by a narcissistic and undercapitalized company.)
Because when you just miss good enough, see if you can guess what the play isn’t.
But all those aforementioned things shouldn’t be cause for celebration, they should be expected. Think about what it means to revel and swoon in simple solid craftsmanship. It means that such efforts are a rare commodity. It means we are so parched in a desert of performance that we call brackish water thirst quenching.
It means the people who we have come to depend on for entertainment in this community are not being pushed towards greater things.