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Review: The Royal Knight Stage Company of River Ridge High School Bravely Tackles Anne Washburn's MR. BURNS, A POST-ELECTRIC PLAY

Bizarre and Brilliant.

Review: The Royal Knight Stage Company of River Ridge High School Bravely Tackles Anne Washburn's MR. BURNS, A POST-ELECTRIC PLAY

When I was visiting the Sistine Chapel several decades ago, an elderly American couple walked up to me and said, "We don't understand any of this. Can you explain it to us?" So, I toured these two tourists, complete strangers, around Michelangelo's masterpiece, describing everything from the Creation of Man to the Drunkenness of Noah. A similar thing happened to me last night after the Royal Knight Stage Company of River Ridge High School's production of Anne Washburn's Mr. Burns, A POST-ELECTRIC PLAY at the Center for the Arts. After the show ended, a group of high school girls, one of them a former student, walked up to me with complete confusion on their faces and said, "We didn't understand any of that. Can you explain it to us?"

And so, like I did in Rome so many years ago, I did. After I told them what the show was about, they smiled and said in unison: "That makes so much sense now!"

I told them something like this: "Mr. Burns, A POST-APOCALYPTIC PLAY is like a game of Telephone. And instead of playing it with people, you play it with future decades and pop culture allusions. Or put it this way. Storytelling takes on many forms, as we saw in ancient times. What if the future mirrored those ancient times, especially after an Apocalyptic occurrence. And imagine if the only work that those people had at their collective disposal was an episode of 'The Simpsons' and various songs that were hits before everything changed. That's what the last act of Mr. Burns was all about, The Simpsons and pop songs coming together, an amalgamation, a musical gumbo."

If you haven't seen the show, I don't know if the above description would be of any help: It's like describing a Rothko painting to the blind or outlining the plot to the labyrinthian Last Year at Marienbad.

Say this for Mr. Burns, A POST-ELECTRIC PLAY: You either embrace its oddness and love it or you vehemently hate every minute of it; you either get it or you're as lost as Agent Cooper in the "Twin Peaks'" Black Lodge. Or perhaps you find yourself in a third category, which may be a majority opinion: You love the performances even if you don't "get" the play at all.

I first saw Mr. Burns, A POST-ELECTRIC PLAY at freeFall Theatre in 2016; it was a remarkable production that I respected more than enjoyed. But I was pretty much alone. At the first intermission, half the audience had left, and another half of the smaller audience had briskly exited after the second intermission. It's as if the audience was told that they had a 50% chance of dying if they stayed to continue watching the show. (RRHS' production only had one intermission.) One person (older than me) told me the freeFall production was the worst play they ever saw, and another (younger than me) said it was a masterpiece and the finest show they'd seen all year. But freeFall wasn't the right venue for a show like that (Jobsite would have been a much better theater to tackle this type of work), but another reason is that Mr. Burns is not an easy play. It's entertaining in a warped way but it's not fun. It's ingenious but its uncompromising. It's a long show, and it often feels long, but there are so many good things in it that it cannot be cast aside.

Its premise is brilliant; you just have to have patience to grab its meaning. But we live in an ADHD world, where life is in a TikTok whirlwind, and patience is not easy for people to have.

Director David O'Hara, high school drama teacher extraordinaire, has so much faith in his students to mount a show like this. He's not telling his students, "Let's do a show that everyone does...Let's do 'Almost Maine'!" He's not doing something easy; he's opening doors for them to take artistic risks. It's a ballsy choice for a show, and my hat (or Sideshow Bob wig) goes off to him for tackling it. Especially since it seems so timely in the Age of Covid.

He also has a marvelous cast of fine actors and terrific singers. Even if the show is not your cup of Ramen noodles, you will enjoy their performances. Best of all, these young performers for the most part don't rush their dialogue. We could hear them clearly and understand their motives. The whole cast deserves kudos: Chelsea Christopher, Brionna Dunderman, Lindsey Fabian, Chaasad Fearing, Melanie Harris, Nathan Poulette and Robert Matson (aided by Isa Cacciavillani and Joseph Acuri).

Robert Matson delightfully bulldozes his way through scenes; you cannot help but notice him onstage. He has amazing energy and smack comedic timing. Imagine Chris Farley meets Lennie from Of Mice and Men. And he makes a terrific "Homer Simpson." I first saw him as Daddy Warbucks in a middle school production of Annie several years ago, and he has come such a long way since then.

Chelsea Christopher is also outstanding and proves that there's nothing onstage that she can't do. No one plays huffy irritation better than Lindsey Fabian, and no one can match their vocal prowess either. Shawna Hopper made her presence known as a talented force, absolutely owning the stage in her big moments. The multi-talented Chasaad Fearing is so much fun to watch, and yet we felt sorry for his bizarre "Bart Simpson" in Act 3. Nathan Poulette is a major find, sort of Rick Moranis meets Bill Gates; his masked "Mr. Burns" was such an incomparably strange concoction that I can't wait to see young Mr. Poulette in future roles.

My favorite part of the play--something I am sure I not alone in--would be the mash-up of pop tunes at the end of Act 2, "Chart Hits." Like a Post-Apocalyptic Pentatonix; Gentleman's Rule in a Mad Max future. Songs like "Titanium," "Somebody I Used to Know," "Anyway You Want It," "Pumped Up Kicks," and "Livin' La Vida Loca" get the VOCA PEOPLE treatment, and the results were heavenly. The harmonies, guided by music director Darrell Huling, were out of this world. It was so good that I could have watched that for two and a half hours.

That said, the entire musical production of Act 3 (score by Michael Friedman, lyrics by Anne Washburn), with songs like "The Call Came on the Radio," "Love and Hate/And Now the Sky," and "The Clouds Have Parted," is certainly brilliant (and brilliantly performed). But it also goes on way too long. The point is easily made, and yet it goes on and on and on, numbing the audience.

Tech elements worked well, especially the demented Simpsons masks worn in Act 3--a Greek chorus acting out the bizarre foibles of Springfield's most famous family. It was a nice touch playing the actual Simpsons' episode, "Cape Feare" (the second episode of the fifth season), prior to the performance. I especially like how the lights started flickering throughout it, and zapping sounds were heard, like we were watching a "Simpsons" episode as the world ends (it reminded me of the family watching TV just prior to bombs destroying the world in Testament).

Aside from the recent pandemic, the show was also jarringly timely in another matter. When the cast pulls out their guns, I immediately flashed to Alec Baldwin's recent shooting tragedy on the set of Rust. Although there was a posted warning for the sound of gunfire in the theatre, perhaps another warning that guns would be pointed directly at audience members should have been added as well (if this was posted, then I missed it).

One of the key portions of the show is the words "Love" and "Hate" written on someone's fingers. It's an allusion to Night of the Hunter and Do the Right Thing, often brought up throughout the play. And yet, "love" and "hate" are the perfect descriptions of people's reactions to Mr. Burns, A POST-ELECTRIC PLAY, which ended its run last night. You either love it or hate it. It's a barren of entertainment for those who don't get it and a barrel of bizarre fun for those who do. Whatever your opinions, you won't soon forget it, and you won't forget the work of Mr. O'Hara's talented teens who brought this odd-but-meaningful story to uncompromising life.

"Love" or "Hate." Which side do you fall on?

Photo credit: Mike Carlson.


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