It should come as no surprise to anyone who has seen Anne Washburn’s MR. BURNS A POST-ELECTRIC PLAY, now in production at Cleveland Public Theatre, that when the show opened in Washington, DC in 2012 and then in New York in 2013, it received mixed reviews that ranged from “passionate dissent” to raves.
Comments varied from, “you’re likely to feel both exhausted and exhilarated from all the layers of time and thoughts you’ve traveled through” to “a talky deep think,” and “the piece loses sight of its humanity with an overproduced pop-rap-operetta third act and an under plotted second act.”
It’s that kind of script…you’re probably either going to love it or hate it. The gaggle of twenty-something young women sitting next to me on opening night laughed hysterically through most of the play, giving it a standing ovation at the conclusion. On the other hand, the middle-aged couple that sat in the row in front of me left their seats after the first act, never to return.
As the play opens, we are confronted by a group of survivors from the collapse of civilization. They may have experienced a plague, or radioactivity, or mass failure of the power grid…all are mentioned by the participants. They sit by a campfire and piece together the plot of “The Simpsons” episode of “Cape Feare.” Much like the “Seinfeld” sitcom fanatics, these people flow “Simpson-talk” with comparative ease. They recount the episode in which Bart is confronted by the evil Sideshow Bob. (The television episode is a take off on Martin Scorsese’s movie “Cape Fear,” which was a remake of the 1962 film.)
Skip forward 7 years for Act Two. A comedy/drama group is enacting Simpsons episodes, complete with commercials. As a television show and commercials are being made using television show plots, commercials, jingles and pop songs from the past, now part of the post-apocalyptic society are recreated. It’s an attempt to cling to what was in order to create a what is.
Act III, takes place 75 years later. Using a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta approach, with the actors wearing masks that depict the various Simpson characters, the troupe repeats the “Cape Feare” tale.
Yes, Bart Simpson, and his family, we are told to believe, has become the catalyst for the myths and legends from which our society is to be remembered.
Being a Simpson aficionado, and being-up-to-date on modern pop culture, aren’t necessary to gain a general understanding of what’s going on, but it sure helps to quickly decode and find the humor and references to many of the lines.
CPT’s production, a regional premiere, under the adept directing by Matthew Wright, is nicely paced, creative and develops Washburn’s intent. The cast is universally strong. Trey Gilpin has Homer Simpson’s actions and sound down pat and displays a strong singing voice. Nicole Sumlin shows off her comic chops as the devilish Bart Simpson. Evan Thompson is evil incarnate as Mr. Burns, while Megan Elk uses her well-trained operatic voice to narrate the third act.
Cathleen O’Malley, Beth Wood, Tim Keo and Abigail Anika Svigelj are all believable in their role development.
Challa Geib-Fenske & Inda Blatch-Geib’s masks are outstanding additions to the production, as is Brad Wyner and Ryan McDermott’s music. (Joe Parker replaces McDermott from 2/22 through 3/5).
Director Wright states in his program notes, “MR. BURNS is about everything. In a very real sense.” He continues, “To parse out meaning and attempt to guide the viewer to any particular interpretation would run counter to the nature of the play, which really invites a kind of contemplative awe at the wonder of human ingenuity.” He concludes, “After enjoying the gem that is MR. BURNS, take some time to appreciate everyone around you.”
Capsule judgement: MR. BURNS A POST-ELECTRIC PLAY is not a production that will please everyone, nor is it meant to be. It can be obtuse, is overly long, and too reference specific. If you are a “The Simpsons” fan, it will help you to understand the images to which the author is referring. For the rest, it could be the basis for a discussion, an attempt to determine what Anne Washburn is trying to tell, and an adventure into the post-apocalyptic future.
MR. BURNS A POST-ELECTRIC PLAY runs through March 5, 2016, at Cleveland Public Theatre. For tickets call 216-631-2727 or go on line to www.cptonline.org.