My friend Adam and I, have spearheaded an attempt to mount the stage version of "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" in Vancouver for sometime in the autumn.
I've known Adam for about two years now - a bit less - and we had a chance to work together at the beginning of this year. Although, while we were in the same play together we were only on stage once together and we didn't actually interact. But backstage we hung out and yakked and watched videos in our downtime from the show itself. One day the video of choice was "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest." Each for our own reasons, we both totally grooved on it.
I read the book in highschool and saw the movie as a kid - which had a tremendous effect on me.
I was perhaps too young for the film at the time, but who is to tell? I recall that I was entranced by Brad Dourif's performance as Billy Bibbit. I don't think I knew up until that point that there was such a thing as taking your own life, and the concept of it was terrifying to me. Billy's suicide is pretty shocking in the film - particularly to a 7 year old.
I had never read the play. I went out and found it and read it. Each format - novel, play and film are each uniquely different - as they should be. Before the play we were working on was done, Adam and I were discussing putting together a co-op to do a production of 'Cuckoo's Nest.'
Before we had committed to each other, it dawned on me that Eden is perfect for the role of Nurse Ratched, and of course I wanted to take a crack at McMurphy
Adam, rightfully as he was going to direct, wanted to have a chance to feel that out. We also felt we needed a reading, just to get the feel of the piece, before we truly committed to it.
Last night was the reading.
The play is old enough that it has quit being quaint in it's time frame and has become an artifact of another era - albeit an interesting artifact. There is a question as to whether it says anything that is worth saying - whether the themes aren't so much an accepted part of the fabric of our modern society that it's no longer worth considering as any sort of valuable statement.
But it remains an interesting play - and could be very interesting in a theatrical sense.
I got the feeling from Adam, post read that he thought Eden and I had effectively sold ourselves - although we do have to actually talk about it, all discussion last night was rather cursory.
But an interesting thing happened - something connected to my biggest fear and challenge with the piece...
But first I'll rewind. Just over a year ago I was in 'Of Mice and Men.' (Coincidentally I was offered the role the same night I first had any sort of significant discussion with Adam, ever.) I had the honour of playing Lennie, the hulking imbecile. The catch there was that I am a fairly average size - 5' 10" 175lbs, not at all hulking. Not at all the image of Lennie. In the end, I am glad no one ever expressed concern over the distance between the expectation and the actualization. But I never really made that a big concern of mine. I just did my job and played the part.
What I was concerned about was having to fill the shoes of a role that has SO much attached to it. From as recent as Malkovich to as far back as Lon Chaney Jr. and of course a Loony Tunes treatment that is seared into the minds of several generations. How the fuck do I say "Tell me 'bout the rabbits, George?" without walking a path marched a hundred times before? How do I say it without eliciting a snicker that is attached to something entirely separate from myself?
When all was said and done, I felt as though I had pulled it off. Two things happened. One was that my size took the character in a different direction - it became more about Lennie being strong and bull-dogish in his focus than big. I also determined that Lennie is/was autistic. Back when Steinbeck wrote the book, 'crazy' was a pretty broad term - applied generally to a wide variety of afflictions. I am convinced, based on Lennie's behaviour, that Steinbeck based Lennie largely on someone specific - someone who was autistic. It's consistent with most of Lennie's behaviour - and to the degree that it isn't it is easily explained by Steinbeck not having a clear definition of the affliction to be consistent to. I don't claim to be the first actor to come up with this idea - I just claim that it ended up working well for me.
The first thing I ever saw Adam in was Cyrano deBergerac wherein he played Cyrano. For me Cyrano is Gerard Depardieu - big, bulky, dextrous beyond his form. Adam is far from big and bulky. Wiry and slight would actually be my physical definition of Adam. But within the first 20 minutes of the play, I had forgotten Depardieu.
The same problem exists for 'Cuckoo's Nest.' Jack Nicholson is all over that role. He is the challenge that any other actor needs to face. Not that I can out act Jack, but I feel up to the challenge. The trick is to deflect it. Do something that is undone. Perhaps even easier with McMurphy than with Lennie - there is only one template of note for McMurphy. Do a good job and do something that is justifiable and absolutely NOT Nicholson and you've got it made... I guess.
So what is it? Reading the play, McMurphy is a bit more of a brawling good ol' boy than the anti-hero miscreant that Nicholson plays in the movie. There's your start. More will follow as we push into production.
After the read, Eden and I hung out with Adam and his girlfriend, Julia. Adam's roommate was having a party. We stuck around for a portion of it. At one point, the roommate came and chatted with Adam about the read through. The one question he asked was "Who is Playing Nicholson?" He is SO much the prototype of the role, isn't he?