“Mr. Burns, A Post-Electric Play” could be called a musical based on “The Simpsons” animated TV series; that would be accurate, but it would miss the point. It is so much more than that.
Playwright Anne Washburn imagines what life and entertainment would be like if civilization were suddenly destroyed. Her play is a clever, funny, weird and horrifying meditation on everything from popular culture to theater to nuclear energy to the limits of memory to humanity’s crucial urge for storytelling.
The play is divided into three long scenes. In the first, several characters around a campfire try to recall an episode of The Simpsons called Cape Fear. It is only gradually that we realize that these are the survivors of an apocalypse that has destroyed civilization, killed many in the population, and eliminated electrical power. These adults are reconstructing the episode to pass the time, to keep themselves entertained and surely to keep themselves sane.
The next scene occurs seven years later, and this particular group of survivors has formed a theater troupe to re-enact episodes of the Simpsons – one of many theater troupes, we’re told, in a world in which electricity has become just a fond memory.
The last section takes place 75 years later, and it is a full-fledged musical, mixing the story of Cape Fear with that of the apocalypse now generations earlier, with music by Michael Friedman (Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson; the recent Love’s Labour’s Lost in Central Park.) This is not meant to be a standard Broadway entertainment, but rather an almost anthropological examination of how a future neo-primitive society would re-imagine its destroyed culture. It manages to convey the horror of Martin Scorsese’s film remake of Cape Fear while maintaining the cartoon feel of Matt Groening’s parodies.
Both the creative team and the eight-member cast navigate expertly through the complexity of tones. As directed by Steve Cosson, the startlingly creative artistic director of The Civilians, the play travels from naturalism to a disturbing futuristic take on commedia del’arte. Set designer Neil Patel and costume designer Emily Rebholz deserve special mention, simultaneously re-creating and subverting the cartoon characters and their milieu. Lighting designer Justin Townsend pulls off the neat trick of presenting a world with no electricity, yet without keeping us in the dark, and add immeasurably to the spookiness; the opening scene around the campfire looks like the beginning of a ghost story, which is some ways it is; the middle scenes feel like brightly-lit burlesque.
Matthew Maher, who was so persuasive as the movie theater worker in “The Flick,” is spot-on as Homer Simpson, especially in a hilarious routine with FBI agents, but all the characters some to life here, Marge and Bart and Lisa, but also Sideshow Bob, Itchy and Scratchy, and Mr. Burns.
Die-hard Simpsons fans, take note: “Mr. Burns, A Post-Electric Play” is not to “The Simpsons” what “You’re A Good Man Charlie Brown” is to “Peanuts;” it’s not the “Addams Family.” This is a wholly original, at times deliberately off-putting work of theater that imagines an era when theater is all that’s left.
Mr. Burns, A Post-Electric Play.
By Anne Washburn
Music by Mcihael Friedman
Directed by Steve Cosson
Scenic design by Neil Patel, costume design by Emily Reholz, lighting design by Justin Townsend, sound design by Ken Travis, mask and wig design by Sam Hill, Special effects design by Jeremy Chernick
Cast: Quincy Tyler Bernstine, Susannah Flood, Bison Frzier, Matthew Maher, Nedra McClyde, Jennifer R. Morris, Colleen Werthmann, Sam Breslin Wright
Running time: two hours and ten minutes, including 15 minute intermission
Tickets: $70 – $9. Rush tickets for theatergoers under age 30: $25 day of performance.
Mr. Burns, A Post-Electric Play is scheduled to run through October 6, 2013