Keeping Amused, with Leah Zeldes

'Supreme visions' of the '60s

Was there ever another time like the 1960s? Will there ever be another such era? So much happened in that short, idealistic, tumultuous decade ... and yet, how little of it lasted.

That seems abundantly clear watching two 1960s plays in revival: "Hair," the epic rock musical about hippies that stunned Broadway when it was produced in 1968, and "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest," Dale Wasserman's 1963 adaptation of Ken Kesey's novel about life in a mental hospital.

Both revivals are fine productions. Boxer Rebellion Ensemble is staging "Hair" with a talented, energetic young cast (none of whom could have been born in 1968). The familiar songs -- including "Aquarius," "Hair," "Good Morning, Starshine" and "Let the Sun Shine In" -- show off some fine voices, particularly Lauren Wolf, Alex Everett and Erline Dorcy, even if the harmonizing is sometimes a little weak.

Wolf is especially effective in her multiple roles as intrusive Establishment adults. Richard Similio gives authenticity to his role as the callous, 19-year-old leader of the hippie tribe, Berger, and Matt Brown is winsome as the uncertain draftee, Claude. Director Scott Olson and Choreographer Bob Kiser have done a beautiful job of staging the large cast in the tiny theater.

Steppenwolf Theatre Company does its usual skillful job with "Cuckoo's Nest," a play that flopped on Broadway and is far better known for the later film version starring Jack Nicholson. Gary Sinese is superb as McMurphy, the impudent new patient on the ward. Amy Morton makes a restrained but effectively repressive Nurse Ratched, and Tim Sampson, Ross Lehman and Greg Vinkler put in fine performances as other patients. Everything about the production clicks, even if it breaks no new ground.

Watching these plays is like stepping back in time.

Although one is a musical and the other is not, the two plays have quite a few similarities. Both follow the group dynamics of a set of people who have distanced themselves from the mores of conventional society, but who create just as confining a set of rules for themselves.

In "Hair," the band of hippies has dropped out and turned on to espouse peace and love. Yet so-called free love still has strife and heartbreak in it, and fitting in with the group seems to matter more than personal values. In "Cuckoo's Nest," the inmates, too weak to cope with the strictures of the outside world, nevertheless create their own pecking order within the ward.

Each play features a charismatic rebel leader -- Berger in "Hair," McMurphy in "Cuckoo's Nest" -- an antihero whose freedom inspires the rest as much as his arrogance repels them.

That's part of what makes both plays seem dated. Rebellion is what the 1960s were all about, but today we don't see many rebels -- maybe because it's too hard to define just what authority there is to rebel against. It's hard to be an iconoclast in a diverse society.

"Cuckoo's Nest" holds up best of the pair. Its portrayals of mental-health institutions and minorities are definitely those of its era, but its message -- that oppression should be resisted, even if the effort is ultimately futile -- is one that's still valid. And these performances are well worth seeing.

It's hard to see "Hair" as more than a period piece, though, even though the songs are still great. This is a play to see for its music, or for nostalgia, not for its relevance.

Free love (which, as the play shows, wasn't so free after all, especially for women) has died of AIDS. It is, however, still a little shocking to see so much live nudity so close up.

Drugs turned out to be just as dangerous as the Establishment said they were (not that people aren't still taking them, but they're definitely less trendy). The Vietnam War is over, and there's no more draft. Tricky Dick and Timothy Leary are both dead. Closely cropped heads are fashionable.

The only "Hair"-y issue still flaring up is flag burning ("Don't Put It Down"). People under 30 may have trouble identifying some of the play's references.

That doesn't mean time traveling isn't fun.

"Hair" continues at 8 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays through June 10 at the Boxer Rebellion Theater, 1257 W. Loyola Ave., Chicago. Only street parking is available. Seating is open, and tickets are $8 to $12. The play contains nudity and language some parents may deem unsuitable for children. Call (773) 465-7325 or see .

"One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" continues through June 24 at Steppenwolf Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted St., Chicago. The play contains themes and language some parents may deem unsuitable for children. Only a limited number of tickets are still available. Call the box office for information about standby tickets: (312) 335-1650.

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