Theater

'One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest' at Woodstock Opera House marks comeback for lead actor

In many ways, a return to theater marks a return to living for Rikki Lee Travolta.

He takes a break from a rehearsal outside the open doors of a warehouse in Woodstock on a breezy summer night.

Filled with dusty props, worn scripts and a makeshift stage, the warehouse is where the TownSquare Players’ version of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” takes form, where the cast polishes their performances nightly for weeks to ensure a powerful June 17 opening on the Woodstock Opera House stage.

“I’ve missed this,” Travolta said as the sun set behind him. “I’m amazed I’ve survived without it.”

This is where Travolta becomes R.P. McMurphy, a convict sent to a mental hospital to serve out the remainder of his sentence with a diagnosis of psychopath – a character most associated with Jack Nicholson, who won an Oscar for his portrayal of McMurphy in the 1975 R-rated film version.

It’s a story all too familiar to Travolta, who after finding success starring in productions such as “Tony n’ Tina’s Wedding,” “West Side Story,” “Bye Bye Birdie” and “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” in Chicago and Los Angeles, suffered a psychotic breakdown in 2008 and ended up in a mental hospital.

“In many ways, my life was over,” said Travolta, who now lives in Woodstock.

Diagnosed with dissociative identity disorder, borderline personality disorder, bipolar disorder and paranoid schizophrenia, his life became a swirl of appointments with mental health professionals, trials of various medication cocktails and simply survival.

With “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” he’s trying to fight back.

It’s a rare production for TownSquare Players, which for the past several years has performed only two musicals a year. Celebrating the success of those musicals and the financial stability they created, this one is for the area actors and actresses looking for meaty roles.

“I knew from the first day I heard they would be presenting the play that this was a role I had to play,” said Travolta, who was among 40 people to audition for the production.

“I was compared to McMurphy in the movie by the nursing staff,” he said with a laugh of his time in the mental hospital.

He’d be a nuisance, steel television remote controls from other floors when the controls were lost on his floor.

“I didn’t make any enemies, but I think at the same time they were glad when I left,” he said.

Through his diagnosis, he realized he’d invented his own name because of a fixation by one of his personalities with John Travolta and the Travolta family. One of his three books, 2013’s “Unbecoming Travolta: A Memoir of Mania and Multiple Personalities,” details the story. He’d believed since his teenage years that he was John Travolta’s nephew.

The personality even legally changed his name at some point to Rikki Lee Travolta.

“In my head, I’m still related to him. It’s not true. It’s just a figment of my imagination,” said Travolta, who wrote a letter of apology to the Travolta family. “That’s something I have to battle with every day, knowing that what is in my head isn’t correct.”

Travolta eventually landed at Thresholds, a mental health organization based in Chicago which provides healthcare and housing to those with mental illnesses.

His mental health issues started long before the diagnosis, he said, remembering a time when he was 14 and heard voices.

He turned to theater, even then.

“I decided I could fall into character in a play and be that character instead,” he said.

And he’s eyed McMurphy, along with “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” – based on the Ken Kesey novel of the same name – for awhile.

“It’s one of the best stories I’ve ever read,” Travolta said. “The second I read it, I knew I wanted to do it.”

Along with the TownSquare Players’ production, his slow climb back includes a TV series comedy he’s pitching with the help of his agent at Alensworth Entertainment in Beverly Hills.

“Champion of the People” takes the premise of a former professional wrestler elected mayor of a small town. It’s described as “ ‘Spin City’ meets WWE,” and set to star Dustin Diamond (“Saved by the Bell”) as the mayor’s chief of staff and Tommy “Tiny” Lister (Zeus in WWE) as the wrestler-turned-mayor.

“I’m having a blast,” Travolta said of his latest endeavors.

A sip of Diet Coke and he’s back in the warehouse along with his 16-member cast.

“Let’s talk logistics,” Director Randall W. Knott is telling them as they take their places.

Having never directed for TownSquare Players before, Knott of Hanover Park, a board member with Wheaton Drama, jumped at “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” when he heard about it.

“I’ve been wanting to do ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’ as long as I can remember,” he said. I didn’t care how long it took me to get there, I was going to do it. It’s one of the greats.”

The production isn’t necessarily meant to be a “money-maker” for TownSquare Players, said Roger Zawacki, a TownSquare Players board member, but he expects tickets to sell.

“Once people see opening night, word of it will get around and people will come,” Zawacki said.

He attributes that to the performances he sees Knott pulling out of the cast, including Travolta.

“I think we’re doing it with great reverence. I think we’re doing it with great energy,” Knott said. “It’s a great ensemble. They’ve had a blast working together. What you’ll see is a production beyond any of the individuals and just one big massive life-force.”

The show is performed the way it’s written, with a rating of at least PG-13, Zawacki said.
In other words, the “loonies,” as Travolta lovingly calls them, perform unedited, and he likes it that way.

“I’ll always be crazy,” he said. “Now I’m just funny crazy.”

“ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST”

WHEN: June 17-26

WHERE: Woodstock Opera House, 121 Van Buren St., Woodstock

COST & INFO: Presented by the TownSquare Players. Based on the novel of the same name by Ken Kesey, the production chronicles the journey of mental health patients at the mercy of a power-hungry nurse. Rated at least PG-13. Schedule: 8 p.m. June 17-18, 24-25; and 3 p.m. June 19, 26. Tickets: $13, $18, $23. Tickets and information: 815-338-5300 or www.woodstockoperahouse.com.

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