Casting Rude Guerrilla Theatre Co.'s current stage production of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest must've been a hard sell for director Gregory Cohen because self-sacrifice isn't at the top of a typical OC actor's list. But whatever methods he used worked: Rude Guerrilla's Cuckoo's Nest, written by Dale Wasserman, is a supreme example of theater's potential to meaningfully affect an audience—and its success has everything to do with Cohen's cast.
The allegorical play-turned-therapy-session is set, as it is in the 1975 Milos Forman film starring Jack Nicholson, in the Oregon State Psychiatric Hospital. But through set design (by Jesse Groth Olson and Cohen) and Cohen's directorial vision, the audience becomes complicit in the action and in its social criticism. We become fellow mental patients, and it's difficult to tell if that wild laughter comes from the madmen onstage—or us.
It's the solid ensemble performance that makes this powerful audience-as-player effect possible. Jay Michael Fraley's R.P. McMurphy has more swagger than Nicholson's, and Brandon Kasper's Billy Bibbit espouses all the naiveté, shame and fear you would expect. Kristin Elliot's performance of the staunch Nurse Ratched toes the line between egomaniac and maternal caretaker so well that a frontal lobotomy almost sounds like a good idea.
One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest at Rude Guerrilla Theatre Co., 200 N. Broadway, Santa Ana, (714) 547-4688. Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2:30 p.m. Through Jan. 29. $10-$20.