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Review: MR. BURNS, A POST-ELECTRIC PLAY at Brown/Trinity MFA

Review: MR. BURNS, A POST-ELECTRIC PLAY at Brown/Trinity MFA

Brown/Trinity Rep MFA cast and director mount stunning production of this scathing dark comic apocalypse

Playwright Anne Washburn wondered what fragments of our consumer TV culture might remain after the fall of civilization. Her 2013 script, Mr. Burns, A Post-Electric Play, explores the question, and the production by Brown/Trinity MFA brings this post-apocalyptic nightmare to vivid life with memorable performances and jaw-dropping visual style that make this show a must-see.

Mr. Burns comprises three acts, fast-forwarding through an American future after a series of nuclear events decimates the population. The first, just months after the catastrophe, then seven years, and finally 80 years later. Linking them all is a lingering memory of the 1993 Simpsons episode "Cape Feare," in which murderous clown Sideshow Bob stalks Bart.

The seven-member ensemble of MFA acting students take on multiple roles, first as survivors, raw from the tragic event, then as a troupe of wandering performers (à la Station Eleven), and finally as Simpsons characters who have ascended to religious archetypes. Think commedia dell'arte filtered through the phosphor glow of a TV screen.

Washburn's intricate, wry script presents huge tonal challenges, but the direction, by Molly Houlahan is as assured as it is inspired. She allows the first act to breathe, grounding us in the lived reality of this group of survivors. The sequence where they haul out notebooks and share names of friends and relatives they're seeking could seem tedious, and in less sure hands, might have been rushed, but Houlahan lets it run in actual, slow, excruciating time, and the effect is like reading the frantic posters that appeared all around lower Manhattan after 9/11. In Act II, which serves as an arch commentary on theater itself, she plays the tragic realism of the performers' struggles in a decrepit gym off the zany escapism of their show; it's crisply staged and pitch-perfect. The final act, set in a post-consumer cargo cult theater of the far future comes on like a Julie Taymor version of a Greek mystery play. It is jaw-dropping. Devastating. Utterly theatrical.

And the actors (all 2023 MFA students) bring the story to vivid life, with each providing both solid ensemble work and star turns. The whole cast is baseline brilliant: they are intensely there in every moment, bringing deeply lived authentic reality in the first two acts and totally committed to the hallucinatory vision of the third. It is such a finely crafted set of interlocking performances that to call out any one of them would be a disservice.

Alphabetically, then. Myka Cue stands out as the over-the-top FBI agent in Act II and Itchy in III. Claire Koenig grounds us as Matt the survivor and the endearing Act II Homer. Fiona Maguire shines as Colleen in the second act. G (preferred name) offers an especially nuanced Sam in Act I and joins Cue as Scratchy in the delightfully antic finale. Jenny Nguyen Nelson offers us a stunning vision of Bart-as-iconic-hero, equally matched by Madeleine Russell's deliciously wicked Mr. Burns. Kai Thomas Tshilkosi brings an anchoring authenticity across all three sequences as Gibson, the Loving Husband, and the ultimate Homer.

The set design, by Anton Volovsek, is gorgeous and detailed. Without ruining any surprises, do not be underwhelmed by Act I's spare rusticity. Volovsek combines meticulous technical execution with a visionary progression from the mundane to the ecstatic. The finale reveal will take your breath away. Camilla Dely's costumes are equally brilliant, tonally perfect, and fantastically inventive. The Mr. Burns outfit in Act III is the stuff of nightmares.

By itself, the third act of this production -- which is mostly sung through, with lyrics by Washburn and music by Michael Friedman -- is among the finest works of theater this reviewer has ever seen. It is take-the-top-of-your-head-off brilliant and you will savor every moment.

This is clearly not a play for everyone: it is a challenging, sometimes meta-theatrical work, and the two-and-a-half hour runtime might seem daunting. The second act jumps in medias res into a future that requires sustained attention to parse effectively, and Act III is a manic fever dream that relies on what speculative fiction critics call "cognitive estrangement," the technique of making everyday reality visible through dramatic dislocation.

To put it prosaically: this show exemplifies the difference between Broadway and Off-Broadway sensibilities. But if you can relax and suspend disbelief, you will be richly rewarded with a captivating evening of theater by an outstanding cast superbly directed. Highly recommended.

Mr. Burns, A Post-Electric Play directed by Molly Houlahan. Brown/Trinity MFA at the Pell Chafee Performance Center, 87 Empire St. Providence, RI. Sat/Sun Sept 25/26 2 & 7:30pm, Thur/Fri Sept 29/30 7:30pm, Sat. Oct 1 2 &7:30pm, Sun. Oct 2 2pm. Tickets $15, Senior $10, Student $7 at or (401) 351-4242. Running time 2.5 hours with a 10-minute intermission.

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From This Author - John McDaid

John G. McDaid is an award-winning science fiction writer and freelance journalist from Portsmouth, RI. He grew up in NYC, where visits to Broadway sparked a life-long love of theater. He worked bo... (read more about this author)

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