Over the years, MCT Community Theatre has carved out its niche by focusing on well-known, widely loved plays and musicals. In that broad sense, the company's upcoming production of "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" fits the proverbial bill.
But that's where common expectations stop. First, because despite its fame, "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" is not remotely close in tone or content to the lighthearted musicals and slapstick comedies that have generally populated MCT's seasons of late. And second, because the local buzz of anticipation for MCT's show has less to do with the title at the top of the playbill, and more about the names on the cast list.
"It's an ensemble show," said guest director David Mills-Low, "and we've got quite an ensemble."
... And that's quite an understatement. When the curtain rises this weekend, audiences at MCT's production might find themselves wondering if they're in an insane asylum or an all-star revue of local thespian talent.
Heading the cast, in the role of Randle Patrick McMurphy, is Andrew Rizzo, whose past turns in local productions including "The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia," "Pillowman," and "Thom Pain (Based on Nothing)" stand among the most memorable theatrical moments of the past decade.
At the bottom of the cast list, in a non-speaking role, is Jeff Medley in the role of "the Walker." Medley, many may remember, has vividly starred twice now in the role of Riff Raff in productions of "The Rocky Horror Show" by Montana Actors' Theatre.
In between those actors is a long list of local stage veterans including Sarina Hart, Tyler D. Nielsen, Chris Torma, Aaron Roos, Jennifer Fleming-Lovely, and others. Together, they bring a pile of long resumes boasting past credits with Montana Repertory Theatre, Montana Actors' Theatre, Montana Rep Missoula, and other local and regional companies.
Mills-Low himself is another well-recognized performer locally, and was initially supposed to act in the production, under the direction of Chris Evans. But when Evans took a full-time job in Great Falls last year, Mills-Low replaced him in the director's chair.
He said his job hasn't been hard, but it also hasn't been easy.
"Having such a fantastic cast makes the basic parts of my job easy," he said. "But having such a fantastic cast also means I have to raise my own bar. It's keeping me very busy and challenged, to say the least."
The fact that practically everyone in America knows "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" surely hasn't aided his plight. Derived from Ken Kesey's best-selling novel of the same name (and later turned into a legendary film of the same name), the play follows the story of McMurphy and his fellow patients at a mental hospital in Oregon. Sent to the hospital for a mental evaluation while serving a sentence for statutory rape, McMurphy tries to convince the other patients to take control of their own fate; but in the end, his rebellion brings about his own, tragic fate.
Mills-Low said he's well aware that audiences attending MCT Community Theatre's production will probably have a background with the story. But he's also confident that they'll find a new appreciation for the drama through the work of the assembled cast.
"We're not going to be doing our best Jack Nicholson and Danny DeVito impersonations; that's not it at all," said Mills-Low. "It's about actors exploring these characters to their fullest human potential. If you come in hoping to see the movie, you'll be disappointed. But in a way this is much more exciting than that, because it's a drama that takes you beyond what you know."
"You may know what happens at the end," he added, "but because you're loving these characters so much, you still find yourself thinking against hope, ‘he's gonna get away, everything's going to be fine.' I think that's really the magic of what great live theatre can do."