MR. BURNS, A POST-ELECTRIC PLAY
Written By Anne Washburn
Music by Michael Friedman, Lyrics by Anne Washburn
Directed by Mark Rucker
featuring Ryan Williams French, Nick Gabriel, Anna Ishida, Charity Jones, Tracey A. Leigh,
Jim Lichtscheidl, Kelsey Venter, and Andrea Wollenberg
When the Guthrie Theater announced that it was going to be presenting (in a co-production with the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco) the area premiere of Anne Washburn’s acclaimed new play Mr. Burns, a post-electric play, I was surprised to say the very least. Being familiar with her work (I had the privilege of working on the area premiere of her play The Internationalist at Red Eye a few years ago) and knowing the edginess of her work in general, I was surprised that the Guthrie would chose it as part of Joe Dowling’s last season. Yes, it’s a highly acclaimed play (coming as it does after critically-acclaimed runs in New York and London) but would the production be able to handle all of Washburn’s jarring tonal changes? More importantly, would this play get the desired effect of getting people into the Guthrie? While I can’t give a definitive answer to the second question, I can to the first; Mr. Burns… is a sharp, satirical comedy that celebrates all that is good in storytelling and theatre while raising some dark questions on our survival as a species.
The plot is deceptively simple. In the near future an apocalyptic nuclear event has taken down the electrical grid, throwing the entire country into chaos. The first act sees a group of survivors sitting around a campfire and trying to keep their spirits up, they try to recall the “Cape Feare” episode of The Simpsons while revealing the details of the current state of the world. Seven years later, the group has now become a theatre troupe that recreates the “Cape Feare” episode and others with commercials. In the third act, which is set seventy-five years after the second act, the “Cape Feare” story has become an agit-prop opera that now reflects the views of the past in a somewhat stabilized society.
To truly appreciate this play, it helps to have at least a passing knowledge of “Cape Feare,” easily one of the best episodes of The Simpsons ever made in its twenty-six seasons, and its purest parody. Not only is a shot for shot riff on Martin Scorsese’s 1991 remake of Cape Fear (and the 1962 original) but also takes bits and pieces from The Night of the Hunter, Psycho, the horror films of the 1980s, and of course the Gilbert and Sullivan operettas The Mikado and H.M.S. Pinafore. And the episode also has some of the most sophisticated jokes written in the show’s history (Sideshow Bob’s joke that his “Die Bart Die” tattoo is German for “The Bart The” being one of many examples). What makes Mr. Burns… such an engrossing play is seeing how this story morphs and turns over time. Of all of the episodes to make mythic, this one is so complex that to see it morph from what we see in the first act to the opera we get at the end is glorious and gloriously confounding. Another great aspect is that the storytelling goes backwards and forwards in its methodology. One way to look at it is that the performance style goes from campfire stories to traditional theatre to opera, but another way is that it goes backwards from the loose, improvisatory style of the first act to the heavily ritualized Greek drama that is the third.
As fun and funny as the play is, Ms. Washburn has some dark things to say about where society is going. One of the biggest things that she purports is that society will always be a dangerous place, even as things somewhat stabilize (such as the casual guns on display in Act Two, which leads to a rather shocking moment at the end of the act). But what I thought was even darker was what this society has decided to be a canonical work. What I think is going to piss of some viewers (and has in some of the reviews I’ve read of the piece) isn’t that this is a triumph of the human spirit and the ingenuity of storytelling, but an examination of what actually survives might not be what you would think should survive. In this brave new world, Shakespeare is made fun of, and what we consider the sacred texts of society don’t really survive. But that also goes part and parcel with Ms. Washburn’s thesis that society will take the stories that it needs and use them to whatever ends are necessary, just as the story of “Cape Feare” keeps morphing as time marches on and the needs of society change.
Thankfully the Guthrie and ACT production of Mr. Burns… is an ingenious production. Director Mark Rucker and his production team (scenic designer Ralph Funicello, costume designer Alex Jaeger, lighting designer Alexander V. Nichols, sound designer Jake Rodriguez, and music director David Möschler) have built a fantastic world that is convincingly dark and electricity free, while still managing to create some jaw-dropping theatrical effects (such as the beautiful last image, which I refuse to spoil). Compose Michael Friedman (best known for writing the score for the controversial musical Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson) has created a spectacular score that snatches bits and pieces of current popular music and shows how that too morphs over time (and I will never hear the song “Toxic” the same way again. And I can not say enough wonderful things about this cast of actors from the Twin Cities and the Bay Area, who have become a well-honed ensemble that is more than up to the task of conveying the humor and horror of the script. Ryan Williams French, Nick Gabriel, Anna Ishida, Charity Jones, Tracey A. Leigh, Jim Lichtscheidl, Kelsey Venter, and Andrea Wollenberg all do spectacular work individually and collectively. If I do have one complaint, it is that the vastness of the McGuire Proscenium Stage swallows up the intimacy of the first two acts, even though it works extremely well for the high theatricality of the third act opera. In the ideal world, the Guthrie would do this a as a progressive style production starting in the Dowling Studio for the first two acts and then heading to the Proscenium stage for the finale.
Part of the reason that the Guthrie and ACT are presenting Mr. Burns, a post-electric play is to bring in newer audiences into what has often been described as a graying institution in terms of audience. Thankfully this ridiculously smart production is more than just an attempt to tantalize a younger demographic. Instead it’s an audacious yet surprisingly warm satire on the end of civilization and the power of popular culture as modern myth. Don’t have a cow, man! Just go see it!
The Guthrie Theater and American Conservatory Theater‘s co-production of Mr. Burns, a post-electric play continues through May 9; with performances Tuesday – Saturday evenings at 7:30pm, Sunday evenings at 7pm, and Saturday and Sunday matinees at 1pm. All performances take place at the McGuire Proscenium Stage at the Guthrie Theater, located at 818 s 2nd St in Minneapolis. Tickets are $34-65 and can be purchased on the Guthrie’s site.
Photo Credit: Kevin Berne