BWW Reviews: Theater Wit's MR. BURNS Conjures Up a Futuristic Folktale
In this modern society where our jobs, lives, and, even, relationships rely so heavily on modern technology, it's no wonder we are inundated with fictional musings of what-if scenarios of our precious technology-heavy world crumbling to pieces. We've seen examples of the clever ways objects from the pre-apocalyptic world can be used to survive. We've seen evil dictators rise after the old ways of governing were evened out from whatever plague/war/alien invasion changed the world as we knew it. We've seen the new world dangers come into play, whether they be nuclear-infused insects or zombies.
Yet, despite the mass amount of stories on the subject, "Mr. Burns, A Post-Electric Play," by Anne Washburn, which opened at Theater Wit this past Monday night, distinguishes itself from other post-apocalyptic (or, in this case, post-electric) tales because it focuses not so much on how these societies survive, but rather what survives in these societies. More specifically, what, from our current age in America, did the characters who survived the electric breakdown (followed by multiple explosions of no-longer-working power plants) find worthy of passing along to future generations from their old lit-up lives?: Mainly, "The Simpsons."
The characters' fixation on "The Simpsons" revolves around one particular episode, "Cape Feare" (which it is not necessary to be familiar with to enjoy "Mr. Burns," but could add to the pleasure). Years after the power goes out, this group of survivors band together to keep telling the stories of "The Simpsons" episodes as best they can remember. There are also songs, daily trials (such as a coworker stealing your lunch), and other conveniences from our current age that find their way into these characters' story-tellings.
I hesitate to say much more about the plot, as the surprise of the unfolding events is best told as they do it onstage. I will say, however, "Mr. Burns" is broken up into three acts that, if simplified, could be described as the spark of an idea, the creation of the idea, and the result of that idea. And, although there is a through-line between all of the acts, each is very different from the others. This makes for both an interesting and disorienting viewing. You're forced to almost start over at the beginning of each act as you learn about how the world as has evolved each time.
In its run in 2013 at Playwright's Horizons in New York, despite being a hit, it had quite a divisive response from audience members; some loving it, some leaving before it finished. I'm not so convinced Theatre Wit's production will receive the same response here in Chicago, where storefront theatre-goers are used to much more outside-the-box shows than "Mr. Burns," but I imagine it will certainly divide people on what they believe should be taken away from the events onstage. That is to say, there is so much within this script (and, in this production, so meticulously and carefully staged by director Jeremy Wechsler) that there are almost endless possible interpretations audiences could take away.
This seems both a triumph and a downfall of the script. In one sense, the amount of interesting ideas the script brings up keeps one interested the entire time. However, the script opens up so many paths of thought throughout the night that it becomes impossible to follow through on every single one. The final scene seemed to be missing the emotional ties to the stories the characters created in the first two acts. We see which things have endured, but we don't see much into the why these are the things that the people of this future civilization remember (or choose to focus on).
Perhaps Washburn wanted her audience to figure that out for themselves, because, who can truly say why certain things imbed themselves into the human psyche over others? But, any thoughts or insight into this weren't explored deeply enough for the audience to form opinions based off the circumstances in the show itself.
However, despite missing that emotional connection in the final act, it is certainly not disappointing. And, a complaint about there being too many exciting ideas in a script is really not much of a complaint. The script is certainly a true work of art and it's clear that Wechsler and the team at Theater Wit recognize the worth of this play and are giving it everything they have.
With a top-notch set (that, really, is three different set designs in one show) by Joe Schermoly (along with Jesse Gaffney on props), lit with precision and skill by Mike Durst, and characters clad in often brilliantly creative costumes by Mara Blumenfeld, the physical look of the show is one of the most stunning and impressive I have ever seen in Chicago storefront theatre.
The cast is uniformly strong with outstanding performances from Jeff Trainor (especially in a moment of panic that the nuclear chemicals are affecting his mind), Christina Hall (who delivers a monologue in the first act with intensity and heart that holds you rapt), and Andrew Jessop (who gives a delicious, savory performance as Mr. Burns in the final act). The balance found between all of the actors in this ensemble piece is spot on, thanks to both Wechsler and the cast themselves, and it is a joy to watch.
Credit must also be largely paid to musical director Andra Velis Simon and choreographer Brigette Ditmars, who aid in creating some of the most entertaining and theatrical moments of the show. The cast sounds fantastic in these bits and the choreography couldn't be funnier or more effective.
The thought of these moments brings up a point about the show that I would be remiss to not mention among all of the talk of the meaty script. Though the script is chock-full of intellectual stimulation, Theatre Wit's production of "Mr. Burns" is also, quite simply, really damn entertaining. It's funny, it's witty, it's interesting, and those three acts fly by.
In fact, this idea of what is more important to give to theatre audiences, pure entertainment or deeper meaning, is brought up in the show itself. It's this moment in "Mr. Burns" (which, really, only takes up a few lines) that rings the most poignant for me and is central to whole play. Do we need meaning or distraction in our stories? And, in this post-electric world of the play, where the stakes are even higher and information is harder to come by, figuring this out can become an essential form of survival, both for those telling the stories and receiving them.
Although we currently live in a (thankfully) electrified world where we get to pick and choose from millions of stories that are readily available for taking in at any moment, Theater Wit's "Mr. Burns" could certainly be one of those essential stories for you. Both extremely entertaining and illuminating, you'll find it hard to leave the theatre without buzzing with electricity.
"Mr. Burns, A Post-Electric Play" is currently playing at Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont Ave, through March 1st, 2015. Tickets start at $25 and can be purchased at www.TheatreWit.org or by calling (773) 975-8150.
Photo Credit: Charles Osgood