Just before a run-through of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” Boston Children’s Theatre director Burgess Clark gathers his mostly teenage cast to talk about the issues the characters confront. The actors speak thoughtfully about what drives Nurse Ratched, who metes out inhumane punishment to patients in a mental health ward, and the rebellious free spirit Randle McMurphy, who shakes things up.
The Ken Kesey novel, adapted into a Broadway play and then an Oscar-winning film, explores the repressive environment within the mental institution, a topic that is a far cry from BCT’s earlier productions of “Miss Nelson Is Missing” and “Curious George.” But Clark says “Cuckoo’s Nest” is widely read in high school and one of the most requested titles from the members of BCT’s pre-professional program, New England TheatreWorks.
“Boston Children’s Theatre offers a range of theater experiences that meet the needs of the students we are training, as well as the audiences who come to see us,” says Clark, who is the theater’s artistic director. “This story offers some wonderfully challenging acting opportunities these kids don’t usually get. I am extremely impressed with the way they handle the maturity of the material.” (Because of language and adult themes, the theater won’t allow children age 14 or under into the show without a guardian’s permission.)
The show runs April 15-29 at Boston Center for the Arts’ Plaza Theatre.
Teresa Gelsomini, who plays Nurse Ratched, the vindictive woman in charge of the ward, says the challenge of the role was part of its appeal.
“Playing the darker side of humanity is risky,” says the Tyngsborough High School senior. “But it’s good to step out of our comfort zone. Nurse Ratched is evil but believes she’s doing the right thing for her patients. I have to find her justification for her behavior in order to make her real.”
Clark devotes a lot of time in rehearsals to helping his actors understand the world in which their characters are living.
“Nothing teaches history like theater,” he says. “Kesey was writing at a time of enormous transition, in the midst of the civil rights movement, at a time when people were beginning to question institutionalization of the mentally ill. By looking closely at these characters and their conflict, the actors see these characters not as ideas but as individuals enormously transformed by the hope McMurphy brings.”
Sam Mulcahy, the third-year Northeastern University student who is playing McMurphy, says he’s a little nervous about his performance being compared to Jack Nicholson’s Oscar-winning turn in the 1975 film, but Clark has encouraged him to make the role his own.
“McMurphy has a primal rage that drives him, balanced by his outsized personality,” says Mulcahy. “What I love about this script is the way there’s a bait and switch: At first it seems to be about this quirky group of people, and then it becomes a much bigger story about thinking for yourself and not letting your situation define you.”
In rehearsal, Clark reminds the actors to bring their own perspectives to each role. “Nobody goes to see ‘Romeo and Juliet’ to find out what happens,” he says. “They want to see what you can bring; how you can make it your own.”
Spreading ‘Joy’ to the city’s neighborhoods
Final performances for a neighborhood tour of “Mr. Joy,” Daniel Beaty’s powerful tale of race and community, will be held at the ZUMIX Firehouse in East Boston April 16 and the Strand Theatre in Dorchester April 20-21. The one-person show, presented by ArtsEmerson and the Mayor’s Office of Resilience and Racial Equity, stars Adobuere Ebiama. Tickets are free but reservations are recommended. Call 617-824-8400 or go to www.artsemerson.org.
Bogosian returns to Woburn
Eric Bogosian, actor, playwright, novelist, and historian, returns to his hometown of Woburn April 26 for “An Evening With Eric Bogosian.” The event, a fund-raiser for the Woburn Public Library renovation and expansion, will consist of stories from Bogosian’s early years performing his one-man shows “Sex, Drugs and Rock ’n’ Roll,” “FunHouse,” and “Talk Radio,” to his most recent historical research around the efforts of a small group of assassins determined to seek vengeance for the Armenian genocide.
“There is no getting away from the fact that an individual getting in front of a group of people and telling a story has tremendous power,” says Bogosian. “I’ve had a great opportunity to create theater, and also to be a performer.”
Bogosian will tell these stories and more in the Woburn Memorial High School auditorium, with special guest Nick Paleologos, a fellow Woburn native, film producer, and former director of the Massachusetts Film Office. For tickets, go to www.thewplfoundation.org.
ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST
Presented by Boston Children’s Theatre, April 15-29. At the Plaza Theatre, Boston Center for the Arts. Tickets: $10-$35, 617-424-6634, www.bostonchildrenstheatre.orgTerry Byrne can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.