There comes a time in every theater-goer’s life when (after seeing a show) they ask themselves, “What did I just see?” “Mr. Burns, a post-electric play” at Cleveland Public Theatre (CPT) is just such a production, running now through March 5 on the CPT campus.
Directed by Matthew Wright, “Mr. Burns” was written by Anne Washburn, with score by Michael Friedman and lyrics by Anne Washburn.
Act One: The regional premier begins not long after an ambiguous apocalypse involving the meltdown of nuclear power plants around the world. We meet a group of survivors as they gather around a fire pit, telling the story of The Simpsons episode, “Cape Feare.”
At first it feels like a tiny crowd of old friends shooting the breeze. There’s story-enthusiast Matt (Trey Gilpin), as well as fellow travelers Jenny (Nicole Sumlin), Maria (Cathleen O’Malley), Sam (Evan Thompson), and Quincy (Abigail Anika Svigeij).
Things turn serious when an outsider named Gibson (Tim Keo) comes upon the camp, where he’s greeted Walking Dead style – with guns, flashlights, and lots of questions. Now it’s clear that this isn’t just a party of tale-telling, it really is the end of the world as they know it. Once the interrogation of where he’s been and who he’s seen is out of the way, Gibson joins the group in the Simpsons episode re-hash (although he’s never seen it).
The actors do a good job as an ensemble creating an atmosphere of “something is very wrong,” and Wright has staged an interesting campfire scene. We come to understand that this reminiscing is the group’s way of staying in touch with a modern world that is no more. The Simpsons are somehow their touchstone to the past, and a link to other surviving groups in the present. O’Malley presents a wonderfully intense monologue that starts with a story about Duct Tape, and Keo does a marvelous “Mikado,” but overall the Act just goes on a bit too long.
The Second Act continues with the same group – Seven Years Later. They have become a traveling theatrical troupe, specializing in performing episodes from their beloved Simpsons show. They even have commercials built in to the act, to remind patrons of what life used to be like in the world before chaos. We add Colleen (Beth Wood) playing the demanding director as the group argues about artistic merits and commercial content. The clothes aren’t as shabby as the first act, and the characters seem to be in a semi-safe location.
Although there are enjoyable parts to Act Two, it also drones on at times. The group is re-hashing the same Simpsons story line, and although it tandems their storytelling of Act One (on a more intense level), it doesn’t seem to “fit.”
Although there’s some mention of other groups entertaining around the country, there’s little mention about how they’ve managed to recover (or not) from the nuclear meltdown. What else is happening around them?
We know that there’s a rumor of a guy with a stash of Diet Coke somewhere, selling it off in trade for lithium ion batteries, but what’s the infrastructure like out there? Are people suffering from nuclear mutations? Have looting and rioting destroyed any of their cities? Is there a government back in place?
A big drama of Act Two seems to be the danger now surrounding a tip booth, which the troupe has set up to pay for memories. People who remember lines from Simpsons episodes can be paid to help the troupe accurately re-create their live pieces. But because people are desperate, it’s no longer safe to get intel for their performances this way. Again, the company is great with their rapport and they do seem to enjoy their roles, but the Simpsons story drags – especially for audience members who may not have seen the actual Simpsons “Cape Feare” episode.
Act Two does give one of the finest “entertainment” nuggets of the 2.5 hour production, as they do a goofy and seemingly random “rehearsal” of their commercial montage featuring pop music from Rihanna, Beyonce, Eminem, Britney Spears, Survivor, and the musical “Fame.” Hats off to choreographer Holly Handman-Lopez for a fun fest in the middle of doomsday! The actors are great and the levity is much needed.
Act Three happens 75 years after that. The audience is still presented with the same episode of the Simpsons, but here is where the “what am I watching?” kicks in.
The set is suddenly a boat where Mr. Burns (Thompson), Itchy (O’Malley) and Scratchy (Keo) have brought the Simpson family to die. Homer (Gilpin), Bart (Sumlin), Marge (Wood) and Lisa (Svigelj) sing and emote. There is a Mikado/Kabuki theme in costume and movement, and a serious/somber styling to the great drama now being told. It seems that the Simpsons episode has become a musical pageant complete with all of the dark tragedy and morals of human extinction.
Reviewing another production of ‘Mr. Burns” for Vulture, critic Scott Brown described the “Mr. Burns, A Post-Electric Play” Act III musical number as “equal parts Brecht and Bart, Homer and the other Homer”.
The actors are talented, having to adapt to the changes and oddities of each Act. Their voices are good, and music director Brad Wyner works magic with a strange score that has no real hummable tunes within. A nod also goes to Megan Elk (Edna) as her beautiful voice soars powerfully through the weirdness of the final act.
All in all, the talented Wright does his best with a strange script and a concept that may leave some scratching their heads as to “why” the world needs a watered-down version of the Simpsons woven into a world disaster.
As another audience member commented, “It never made me care about anything… how much play-within-a-play can we take?” However, that same audience member also noted that the premise is “original enough to merit interest” from everyone, Simpsons fans and non-watchers, alike.
Simpsons die-hards will either appreciate some of the nuances of the show’s references, and some may be left wondering “what happened to THAT part in the episode?” Regardless, it’s not a light-and-fluffy piece for someone just looking to be easily entertained. But don’t have a cow, man – it’s not really the end of the world.
Tickets are $12 – $30 and are available at www.cptonline.org or (216) 631-2727 x 501. “Mr. Burns, a post-electric play” runs through March 5 at Cleveland Public Theatre.