‘Cuckoo’s Nest’ bold successn Malibu High takes on the gritty material of Ken Kesey’s “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.”
By Caroline Thomas/Special to the Malibu Times
With the recent passing of sixties radical author Ken Kesey, bringing his “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” back to the stage seems particularly appropriate. Unfortunately, some staff members at Malibu High School disagreed-questioning the appropriateness of having teenagers perform this racy material. But whether it was wise (or not) to have these young actors embody these volatile characters … they certainly did just that.
In a poignant introduction, director/drama teacher Rod Arrants imparted his take on the era when Kesey’s controversial adventures helped mold the Beat Generation.
Arrants felt that setting the mood was enlightening for this Thursday night audience that was mostly born in the eighties.
He spoke of Kesey’s pals Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady, and the cross-country sojourn that became the stuff of Tom Wolfe’s “The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.” Kesey had a keen knack for pushing the envelope and his 1962 hit novel, “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” was no exception.
The setting is a ward of a state mental hospital “somewhere in the Midwest,” where a group of troubled men are ruled by the controlling Nurse Ratched. Of course, many “older folks” may remember Louise Fletcher’s chilling performance opposite Jack Nicholson in the 1975 Oscar-sweeping film.
Malibu’s high school students do a stupendous job filling these mature roles.
Former Malibu High quarterback John Heinonen potently plays the misplaced R.P. McMurphy. Heinonen, 17, gave up football to pursue drama and his dedication shows off here-in only his second undertaking. Senior Lolly O’Fallon gives an unflinching performance as the steely Nurse Ratched. Backstage she claimed, “Ask anyone, I’m really nice, I promise!”
Carl Redbird was perfectly cast as the ominous “Chief,” and Taylor Goldsmith was convincing as the ambiguous patient Harding.
The reckless night aide Turkle (Chris Tomlinson) and compulsive patient Martini (Joe Wiebe) added some much-needed humor, and McMurphy’s party girls and the rest of the cast add diversity and depth to this disturbing study of life on the edge.
Under the tutelage of Arrants, two other actors stand out as naturals: Daniel Tillinghast as the innocent, stuttering Billy, and Robert McShane as the explosive Charles Cheswick. Arrants is proud of how his students “get it.”
“Even though the play is 40 years old now, it’s still provocative,” said Arrants. (He cut only some of the provocative language.) “It questions the nature of freedom and power.”
“It’s what you want to make it,” says Heinonen of the story. “It definitely touches you in a lot of ways.”
Arrants, a seasoned actor/director who studied at San Francisco’s renowned American Conservancy Theatre, has shown tremendous dedication to the high school’s theater arts program. Feeling pressured because he lacks a California teaching credential, he has pushed to stay on at the school. He hustled to fulfill the district’s strict requirement of full classes and tackled the dilemma of having no venue for shows due to the lengthy reconstruction of the school’s multipurpose room. The Malibu Stage Company has become the drama department’s temporary home.
Arrants’ life is further complicated with his commute to North Hollywood (where he relocated before he took the job) and his many trips to San Francisco where his 34-year-old daughter is battling breast cancer.
Despite life’s obstacles, Arrants remains upbeat and sums up his feelings with the sweep and emotion of a mentoring thespian: “It’s a conundrum whether to stay but I have fallen in love with these kids. This has been a grand experience for me.”