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Review: CATCO'S MR. BURNS: A POST ELECTRIC PLAY at Riffe Center

THE SIMPSONS provide the backbone of entertainment in a world without electricity

Review: CATCO'S MR. BURNS: A POST ELECTRIC PLAY  at Riffe Center There's an old joke that says only three things can survive a nuclear war - cockroaches, Twinkies, and Cher. In the post-apocalyptic world of CATCO'S Mr. Burns: A POST ELECTRIC PLAY, only a handful of people, a limited number of cans of Diet Coke, and the flawed memories of the Fox Network's cartoon series THE SIMPSONS, remain.

In a three-act, two-and-a-half hour "immersive experience," director Leda Hoffmann shows the audience when the lights go out around the world, only a few items are truly eternal: fear, the need for community, and the power of storytelling.

The show may not be everyone's cup of tea, but it is unlike anything a theater goer is going to see in Columbus this year. Written by Anne Washburn with music by Jonathan Friedman, the show opened Oct. 28 and runs through Nov. 14 at the Riffe Center (77 S. High Street in downtown Columbus).

Actors Eli Brickey, Shauna Davis, Acacia Duncan, Brian Gray, Nicolette Montana, Oluchi Nwokocha, Jonathan Putnam, and Scott Douglas Wilson guide viewers through a poignant, message-packed gauntlet of three acts on three different stages.

The first act, which focuses on the importance of community, is delivered in a poorly lit enclave of the Riffe Center to create the ambiance of a world without electricity. Matt (who is played by Wilson) regales the SIMPSONS episode "Cape Feare" around a trashcan fire for fellow survivors Jenny (Montana) and Maria (Duncan) while Sam (Gray) keeps a watchful eye over their encampment.

For the SIMPSON faithful who have seen that episode, it was amusing to see the cast reenact the second episode of season 5 while mixing in elements from different shows and seasons. Newcomer Gibson (Putnam) gains the other's trust by adding in his memories from the episode. Midway through, he has an epiphany and bursts out Sideshow Bob's line: "Oh, I'll stay away from your son, all right. Stay away...forever! Wait a minute, that's no good." Gibson's sinister voice leads Sam and Matt to draw guns on him before realizing the visitor is quoting a line from the episode.

After the first act, the audience is directed to a Second Stage, a black box theater that represents a shift to seven years in the future. The second act centers around the value of storytelling. Gibson, Maria, Matt, Jenny, and Sam are joined by newcomers Colleen (Nwokocha) and Quincy (Davis) to form a struggling traveling troupe that presents SIMPSONS episodes around the country. In this epoch, the struggle for scripts and lines creates a MAD MAX like environment. Members of these traveling acting companies often supply their own dialogue to round out the episode and recreate commercials to place between the portions of the show. However, theatre companies often purchase scripts to give their show more authenticity.
In the final act, performed in the Riffe theater's main stage, Mr. Burns' cast takes the audience nearly eight decades into the future where THE SIMPSONS episodes have become one of the highest, most sacred forms of art. Even the opening theme song is performed by solemn chanting monks before the start of the show. While a trickle of the lines remains faithful to the Cape Feare episode of Act 1, the installment has metamorphized into something like Japanese Kabuki theater at best or the Uncle Thomas play within play of THE KING AND I at worst. Bart Simpson (whose skinny armed, defiant persona is captured by Brickey) is added to the show while the villain is altered from Sideshow Bob to a goat-headed Mr. Burns (also played by Wilson).

Mr. Burns gives its eight-person cast an opportunity to show off their theatric gifts. Some are gifted actors while others showcase their beautiful singing voices in a few musical numbers. It presents a wide variety of messages subtly but in a way that audiences can relate to it.
If there is one knock against Mr. Burns is it assumes the audience is familiar with THE SIMPSONS, which is the longest running animated show in America at 33 seasons. For example, when the actors are rehearsing their rendition of Cape Feare in Act 2, a director shouts to "put out the rakes," a reference to Sideshow Bob's predilection to stepping on rakes and getting smacked in the face in the Fox program. The long-time viewers of THE SIMPSONS heartedly guffaw at the reference, but one imagines novices of the show might not understand it. That being said, the person next to me said she had never seen the animated series but enjoyed the show.

Perhaps the most unsettling thing about the play was not something that happened on stage but the fact the audience had to wear surgical masks and present vaccine cards to watch it. While it is a necessity during these times, it serves as a reminder that perhaps the apocalypse is not that far away.

How To Get Tickets

Mr. Burns: A POST-ELECTRIC PLAY will be performed Oct. 28-Nov. 14at Riffe Center (77 S. High Street in downtown Columbus. Times for The Remains are 7:30 p.m. Nov. 4 and 11, 8 p.m. Nov. 5-6 and 12-13, and 2 p.m. matinees Nov. 7 and 14. For more information, visit www.CATCO.org or call 614-469-0939.



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