BWW Review: Mad Horse Finishes Season with Dark, Apocalyptic Comedy
Mad Horse Theatre's 2018 has certainly pushed the envelope in repertoire choices, fearlessly programming provocative, often dark, edgy, but always intensely human plays. Its last selection of the season, Anne Washburn's 2012 Mr. Burns, A Post Electric Play, coming on the heels of The Nether and The Last Days of Judas Iscariot, brings this adventurous season to a stirring conclusion.
Washburn's play in three acts examines a grim world of post nuclear survival and traces the history of humankind from the immediate aftermath of a nuclear disaster, to the survivors' attempts to rebuild a cultural context seven years later, and then to seventy-five years later when the memories of the catastrophe have been conflated with the pop culture characters of The Simpsons to create a new mythos. Washburn draws black comedy from the bleak universe of the play, mining the incongruities of pairing the iconic, bumbling Simpson family cartoon stories with the harsh realities of a world in chaos. Throughout she asks questions about how a society uses stories to shape its identity, how those stories gradually morph to satisfy the need for myth and heroes, and how art - specifically theatre - is important in the survival of the human race and spirit.
The nature of the playwright's themes and the long time span of the play (some 82 years) necessitates a slow development that at times in the first act approaches the onerous, but as the play advances and the stories we have heard in the first act reappear like leitmotifs in fragmented or reshaped forms in the second and third, the cumulative effect coalesces into a powerful crescendo. As absurd as it may seem to have elevated Bart Simpson to heroic status, the music, masks, and stylized world of Act 3 make this newfound fusion of pop culture, religion, and art not only believable but also oddly touching.
In what Washburn herself called "a beast of a play," director Reba Short succeeds masterfully in weaving all the threads of the story together into the final impressive tapestry. She dances with agility between moments of searing realism and the heightened reality of formalism. She is assisted by Christine Louise Marshall's expert choreography and Jake Cote's taut fight sequence for the third act, as well as by the haunting musical accompaniment - both vocal and instrumental provided by Lex Jones and Brittany Cook. Chris Price's set (with props by Katherine Saunier) moves from a dark campfire to a makeshift stage above a raging river to the final dock that has been transformed into a quasi church-like performance space. Corey Anderson's lighting design successfully establishes the chiaroscuro of the play from the eerie ashcan fire that leaves actors frequently in the dark or half lit in the first act to the increasing brightness as the characters struggle to find their way back to the light in both literal and figurative ways. Short creates the evocative third act masks that complement Janice Gardner's costume design which changes perfectly with each epoch of the play and captures the cartoon character feel of the SImpsons.
The relatively large cast (eight) performs with ensemble perfection. Jake Cote's Matt, Allison McCall's Maria, and Shannon Campbell's Jenny are vulnerable and poignant as the young survivors in the immediate aftermath of the tragedy and again in their newfound roles in Act 2, with McCall's delivering a heart wrenching monologue about one man's attempt to keep the nuclear reactor from exploding - a story that returns transformed in later acts. Marie Stewart Harmon makes a determined, strong-willed Colleen in Act 2 and a boyish, empathetic Bart Simpson in Act 3, while Brent Askari as Gibson has a memorable emotional melt down in Act 2 and Christine Louise Marshall is a warm Quincy. Corey Gagne plays an appropriately dim Sam and then transforms himself seamlessly into the mythic incarnation of evil, Mr. Burns. Brittany Cook's Edna provides the strong vocal underpinnings of the last act.
As a theatrical work, Mr. Burns, A Post Electric Play is rich in texture and complex in concept. One feels a certain sense of awe watching this ensemble fuse all the disparate parts of the play into a whole that is as curious as it is satisfying. This has been a remarkable season for Mad Horse Theatre, attributable, among so many other reasons, to the company's uncanny instinct for choosing unusual repertoire in which they deeply believe and then mounting productions that convince its audience to share that belief.
Photographs courtesy Mad Horse Theatre