BWW Review: MR. BURNS...Static Electricity
Mr. Burns, A Post-Electric Play
Written by Anne Washburn, Score by Michael Friedman, Lyrics by Anne Washburn, Directed by A. Nora Long; Music Director, Allyssa Jones; Choreographer/Movement Director, Yo-El Cassell; Scenic Design, Shelley Barish; Costume Design, Amanda Mujica; Lighting Design, Wen-Ling Liao; Sound Design, Samuel Hanson; Mask Design & Construction, Lauren Duffy; Production Stage Manager, Brittany K. Giles-Jones
Mr. Burns, A Post-Electric Play, set in the very near future after an apocalyptic event, begins in semi-darkness with a quartet of survivors sitting around a fire in a barrel. Unfortunately, even when the lights come on, the subsequent scenes taking place seven years later and seventy-five years hence left me in the dark and wondering about the future of theater if the descendants of these characters are in charge. With all of the stories ever told in the history of mankind from which to choose, these wandering travelers revel in the retelling of the "Cape Feare" episode of The Simpsons. If stories are our human record, how do you explain the choice of television cartoon characters to represent our past?
The thesis of playwright Anne Washburn, that storytelling and making theater may be of great value in times of crisis, is valid and worth defending. She was spurred to write Mr. Burns as a reaction to the post-9/11 atmosphere, and choosing a setting where civilized society has been destroyed makes sense. Her contention that people will form traveling theater troupes and tell familiar stories also makes sense. However, the amount of time spent in the opening scene piecing together The Simpsons episode, line by line, word for word, is excessive. It becomes excruciating in its detail, leading me to wish that we were flies on the wall of a different group of survivors - perhaps those who bonded over fond memories of episodes of Seinfeld, or the works of a great playwright like Tennessee Williams or William Shakespeare.
Some semblance of civilization has returned seven years later when the next scene has the troupe producing a television show, including commercials (it would appear that the scourge of advertising survives the apocalypse, like cockroaches). They manufacture something out of very little, and break out in a cappella song and dance for a mini-production number, evoking the old Judy Garland/Mickey Rooney movies ("Let's put on a show! I'll get my father's barn!"). Dialogue includes a riff on the scarcity of Diet Coke, one of the characters breaking down when he can't remember something and fearing it is a sign of radiation illness, and a discussion about buying lines to use in their shows. The scene jumps all over the place and very little makes sense, but we are reminded that their world is dangerous when unseen raiders show up to bring down the curtain on the act.
The third act fast-forwards to eighty-two years after the apocalypse. All of the actors are wearing costumes and masks of the Simpsons characters and perform a musicalized version of the "Cape Feare" episode on a houseboat. For the uninitiated, the diabolical Mr. Burns is bent on killing Bart, but has to do away with the rest of the family members along the way. Homer, Marge, and Lisa reappear as angels to keep watch over Bart from atop the boat when he duels with Burns. A four-piece band, led by Music Director Allyssa Jones (piano), accompanies the cast on composer Michael Friedman's eclectic pop score, with choreography/movement by Yo-El Cassell.
Mr. Burns, A Post-Electric Play, one of the most-produced plays in the country this season, is a major undertaking for the Lyric Stage Company and Director A. Nora Long is up to the task. She is assisted by a great group of designers (Shelley Barish, scenic; Amanda Mujica, costume; Wen-Ling Liao, lighting; Samuel Hanson, sound; Lauren Duffy, masks) to differentiate the three eras in the world of the play. The company of actors features strong performances by Jordan Clark, Aimee Doherty, Brandon G. Green, Gillian Mackay-Smith, Joseph Marrella, Lindsey McWhorter, and Nael Nacer. Despite their contributions and best efforts, the play failed to electrify me. I think this is one of those plays that will be loved or excoriated, but I daresay that I was not alone in the latter camp.
Photo credit: Mark S. Howard (Cast of Mr. Burns, A Post-Electric Play)