BWW Review: CityRep Has An Incandescent Hit On Their Hands with MR. BURNS, A POST-ELECTRIC PLAY
Last weekend, CityRep opened Mr. Burns, A POST-ELECTRIC PLAY at the downtown Civic Center. A co-production with Oklahoma City University, featuring up-and-coming student artists and professional Equity actors on equal footing, the CityRep production of Anne Washburn's delightfully unconventional script is one of my favorite shows the company has produced in recent memory.
Mr. Burns is essentially three separate one-act plays threaded together by a common theme. On the surface, it could seem like a play about The Simpsons, yet the script actually touches on deeper levels: survival instincts, humanity's need for storytelling, and our stories' power to comfort or challenge. Act One is set a few months after a breakdown of the electrical grid, which has caused an apocalyptic shift in daily life; the characters are essentially sitting around a campfire recounting favorite stories and memories. Act Two takes place seven years later, with the same characters (or are they?) banded together as a rag-tag group of traveling theatre gypsies, now taking those same tales and concocting a Mickey-and-Judy style musical (with some Britney Spears tossed in for good measure.) Act Three is set 75 years after that, and the once-charming, humble show has morphed into a full-blown operatic tragedy of Grecian proportions.
From our lead performers, there is not a weak link to be found. Timothy Fall starts the show off strong, offering a wonderfully naturalistic and subtle performance, highly appropriate to the close quarters of the intimate CitySpace Theater. I have seen other productions in this same theater, and oftentimes actors forget their audiences are much closer than in a typical proscenium house. Fall does not, and his earthy performance helps ground the material. Another standout of Act One is Kris Schinske. Consistently exceptional in every other show I've seen her in, Schinske shines in Washburn's writing. She underplays, simply exists; never forceful, abidingly magnetic.
One of my favorite performances of Act Two was Bob Hess, who has the opportunity to showcase both comedic and dramatic chops. Act Two is more heightened and silly, and Hess plays that appropriately, but where he really sparkles is in the exploration of his pain and turmoil as the darker realities of his new world order arise.
By Act Three...well, let's just say things get crazy. A literal greek chorus kicks us off (OCU student Kevin Taylor was a particular standout) with striking choreography from Daniel Leeman Smith, and we are finally introduced to our title character, played with relish by Paul Taylor. Complete with masks and outlandish costumes (gorgeously designed by Robert Pittenridge and Andy Wallach) we meet Bart, Homer, Lisa, Marge, and the rest of the gang. We get power ballads...we get foreign languages...practically any theatrical convention you can imagine is thrown in, along with the kitchen sink. This over-the-top ridiculousness is a dynamic contrast to the simplicity of the earlier acts. To be honest, I felt like some of the cast were tired by the time we arrived at the end; I noticed a particular lack of focus from some of the student ensemble - in such an intimate space, when even a few performers disengage and allow themselves to wander, it makes a palpable difference. The leads however continued to shine - did anyone ever think one would use the term "heartbreaking" to describe Bart Simpson? And yet that is exactly what Lisa Clark offers us; her touching, soulful ballad surprisingly revealing the character's universality. Anne Washburn's script has taken what, at first glance, seem to be fluffy cartoons, and transformed them into relatable journeymen, allowing us the audience to discover our own desires and inadequacies within these characters.
Director Brian Parsons has assembled a crackerjack cast, but never leaves them stranded. He allows them to meander their way through the dialogue of the earlier scenes - exactly as the writing calls for - yet guides them appropriately to ensure maximum impact. Under his keen eye, moments feel neither self-indulgent nor rushed. The only places I wanted more from were the flashes of danger...they didn't feel menacing, they felt "stage-safe." I am an advocate for actors' safety onstage - nor do I want audiences to feel in literal danger - but the violence felt quite comfortable and rehearsed. However, the moments of kinship and empathy - especially towards the end - were halcyon and truly impactful under Parsons' leadership.
CityRep has a hit on their hands. I hope the lack of familiarity with the title doesn't discourage audience attendance - this play is one of the most-produced in regional theaters around the country this season, and for good reason. The only drawback I can see is that Mr. Burns is only around for one more weekend. I applaud CityRep and OCU for introducing such thought-provoking art to the heartland, and hope you, dear reader, flock to the theater in droves to experience the magic.
Mr. Burns, A POST-ELECTRIC PLAY
By Anne Washburn; music by Michael Friedman; lyrics by Anne Washburn; presented by Oklahoma City Repertory Theatre and Oklahoma City University School of Theatre; directed by Brian Parsons; musical direction by Eric David Frei; movement direction/choreography by Sheri Hayden; scene design by Jason Foreman; costume design by Andy Wallach; lighting design by Aaron Mooney; sound design by Nathan Schilz; props design by Larry Heyman; assistant director / choral movement direction by Daniel Leeman Smith; masks designed by Robert Pittenridge; production stage manager, Steve Emerson.
WITH: Timothy Fall (Matt / Homer / Scratchy), Sarah Feist (Jenny / Marge), Kris Schinske (Maria / Second FBI Agent / Itchy), Paul Taylor (Sam / Bart / Mr. Burns), Ashley Arnold (Colleen / First FBI Agent / Lisa), Bob Hess (Gibson / Businessman / Homer), Liza Clark (Quincy / Businesswoman / Bart), Caroline Stella (Edna), Jordan Jacobs (Troy McClure), Maddie Razook (Apu), Kevin Taylor (Chief Wiggum), Nick Plasko (Nelson), Tobi Kay Harrison (Willy), Bailey Burleson (Flanders), Blake Sauceda (Chorus / Swing), and Mercedes Arndt (Chorus / Swing).