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Review: ‘Mr. Burns, A Post-Electric Play’ At Stage West

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Campy campfire tales: Henry Greenberg, Kelsey Leigh Ervi, Jessica Cavanagh, Ian Ferguson and Paul Taylor in Mr. Burns. Photos: Buddy Myers

With Mad Max, The Walking Dead and dozens of other TV shows and movies, Hollywood has thoughtfully provided us with several apocalyptic futures to choose from. But in the future in Mr. Burns, a Post-Electric Play, sometimes, you just want to huddle around a campfire and re-enact episodes from The Simpsons. In his review, KERA’s Jerome Weeks says the regional premiere of the comedy at Stage West in Fort Worth is not just bleak, it’s funny. And smartly done.


If you know The Simpsons — especially if you know episode two, season five, title: Cape Feare —  odds are, you’ll enjoy the challenging and enjoyably oddball Mr. Burns at Stage West. You’ll certainly laugh more than if you don’t know The Simpsons, don’t know that, say, Sideshow Bob is a deranged, former TV clown bent on murdering the animated show’s lovable scamp-star, Bart Simpson. I’m not sure what to say to people who don’t know such things other than – hey, running for 26 seasons as the longest-lasting primetime network show with 31 Emmy Awards must mean something. That – and sadly, you’ll find it harder to appreciate Anne Washburn’s remarkable comedy about disaster, hope, meaning vs. entertainment and the re-invention of theater.

A number of the best episodes of The Simpsons — including A Streetcar Named Marge and New York City vs. Homer Simpson — include spoofs of live theater. Broadway musicals in particular come in for some well-deserved mockery, and Washburn’s Mr. Burns can be seen as a merry bit of table-turning, the theater having fun with Matt Groening’s Minion-colored characters, especially as her play targets one of the best of those theater-send-up TV episodes. In the grim near-future in Mr. Burns, survivors huddle around and bond with each other through a re-telling of Cape Feare, complete with vocal impressions and singing.

But Mr. Burns has more serious fish to fry on its trash-can fire than just spoofery. It’s only to be expected we Americans would end up in the dark like this — what with Homer Simpson’s hopeless incompetence as a board operator at the Springfield Nuclear Power Plant, a facility so shoddily maintained by its skinflint owner, Montgomery Burns, that it has sagging screen doors and raccoons wandering in and out. So, inevitably, our world was wiped out by a series of nuclear meltdowns — leaving only these hardy survivors to piece together what remains. When they meet new strangers, they solemnly swap their handwritten lists of other survivors they’ve encountered, hoping to find a familiar name. And they share what they love and remember from The Simpsons, the Rosetta Stone, Gutenberg Bible and First Folio of American pop culture.

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Caroline Dubberly, Henry Greenberg, Mikaela Krantz, Jessica Cavanagh in Mr. Burns.

Seven years pass, and those impromptu campfire groups have become theater troupes who compete violently with each other to provide more elaborate shows (“Meaning’s everywhere,” one woman snarls. Real distraction from all this disaster, real entertainment — now that’s hard to come by and worth paying for.) No one’s seen an actual TV broadcast in years — there’s still no electricity, they’re using candles on stage, no one even remembers what chablis tastes like — yet these theater companies stage fondly remembered TV ads and music mashups. Composer Michael Friedman has whipped together a terrific goulash of Eminem, Beyonce, Survivor, Gloria Gaynor and Kanye West — as if precisely to demonstrate that pure meaninglessness can offer hilarious entertainment.

In the second act, things get even weirder, mishy-mashier — opening with theater-as-ritual, part ancient Greek drama, part Druid-gas-mask chant. But then it quickly leapfrogs forward in stage history. The Simpsons’ episode of Cape Feare sent up both the 1991 Martin Scorsese-Robert DeNiro re-make of the thriller and the actually more disturbing, Robert Mitchum original from 1962. In the TV show, the machete-wielding Sideshow Bob traps the Simpson family aboard a houseboat set adrift on “Terror Lake” — only to have Bart foil his murderous plans by flattering him into singing the entire Gilbert and Suillivan score from H.M.S. Pinafore. (“Very well, Bart,’ he agrees cheerfully, “I will send you to heaven before I send you to hell.”)

By the end of Mr. Burns, it’s as if Gilbert and Sullivan have had their revenge by taking over these pseudo-Simpsons and transforming their medieval melodrama into an operetta. Derek Whitener and Victor Newman Brockwell’s marvelous costumes may say ‘Shakespeare with the lid off’ but the actors (notably Caroline Dubberly as ‘Bart’) are singing pure Opera Comique.

All this sounds like some fractured pastiche, a trio of collegiate comic sketches at best. But Ann Washburn stage rituals and stories. Consider the familiar ending of Ray Bradbury’s apocalyptic novel, Fahrenheit 451. All the books in the world are being hunted down, piled together and burned, but at the end, hope comes from the homeless — renegade intellectuals, actually — who’ve memorized entire books. They become living novels to preserve literature for some future epoch. Well, Washburn has a bleaker, funnier, more complex idea of how that might work out. Here, human memory misfires and misbehaves, and culture instinctually gloms on to anything – from Greek dramas to TV jingles — perfectly willing to risk the ludicrous or the lumpen

Directed by Garret Storms with musical direction by Aimee Hurst Bozarth, Mr. Burns is the most ambitious, most delightfully daring production Stage West has offered in years. The show doesn’t maintain the necessary sense of dread so well evoked in the opening. The second scene needs real fear, a feel for ruthless violence in order for the ridiculousness to pop out (people are shooting and dying over buying and selling old gags?). Nonetheless, the energy and conviction of the cast in general is obvious — they seem to know this is something special. In particular, as a monstrous villain at the end, Paul Taylor delivers a combination of Sideshow Bob, Richard III, Richard Nixon and Mr. Burns; it ranks as one of the hammier, more bizarrely entertaining performances, a kind of one-man, fright-wig, costume party. On a binge.

Many may well find Mr. Burns puzzling; it doesn’t offer conventional story lines to follow. And I suspect in twenty years, much of the show’s humor will have to be translated for an audience that no longer has any idea who these characters are or what they once meant. But the big story in Mr. Burns is Washburn’s image of how culture collapses and regenerates, constantly — like a coral reef building itself up on its own bones.

in short, this is the way the world ends — not with a bang but a snicker.