Grand ambitions, good intentions not quite realized in Cleveland Public Theatre’s regional premiere of ‘Mr. Burns, A Post-Electric Play’
By Bob Abelman
Maybe it’s our newfound awareness that pollution and overconsumption are driving the planet to ruin. Perhaps it’s our increasing dependence on technology or the tension generated by the current state of global politics. There’s been a rash of post-apocalyptic fiction and television in recent years, from “The Hunger Games” trilogy and “The Maze Runner” to “The Walking Dead” and “Falling Skies.”
None is as funny as Anne Washburn’s wild, three-act dystopian comedy “Mr. Burns, A Post-Electric Play,” which opened at the Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company in Washington, D.C., in 2012, had an Off-Broadway run in 2013, and is getting its regional premiere at Cleveland Public Theatre.
While the play is poignantly wrought and addresses serious, big-picture issues like the nature of human resilience, the importance of community, and the power of storytelling to sustain humanity and salvage culture, “The Simpsons” – TV’s longest-running sitcom – serves as its source material, which adds a delicious, head-shaking absurdity to the entire affair.
It is more than appropriate that “Mr. Burns” is being performed by the CPT — whose mission is to raise consciousness through adventurous new work — in its dilapidated Gordon Square Theatre space, where Wes Caulkin’s bare-bones set and dramatic lighting make it easy to imagine the apocalypse.
At the helm is Matthew Wright, whose brilliant direction kick-started CPT’s inventive and hilarious production of “Spirits to Enforce” not long ago.
The first act of “Mr. Burns” takes place in the immediate aftermath of a global apocalyptic event, as a group of worn and weary strangers gather around a campfire. To distract each other from the recent calamity and help stave off the gloom, they collectively recount classic tales, settling on — of all things — the second episode of the fifth season of “The Simpsons,” called “Cape Feare.”
In the second act, seven years later, the survivors are a touring theatrical troupe and the keepers of our culture. They barter for goods by recreating, re-enacting and embellishing memories of the sacred stories of episodic television, with commercials, and performing a hilarious medley of tunes by Lady Gaga, Ricky Martin, Kanye West, Beyoncé and others, set to Holly Handman-Lopez’s fun choreography. By doing so, they keep the pilot light of civilization burning in this dark, post-electric world, even though stories have now become monetized and the memories they share are grounded in painful nostalgia.
By the final act, 75 years into the future, “The Simpsons” is the stuff of cultural mythology. The meaning of the show’s stories is profoundly allegorical and the characters’ status has been raised from lovable archetype to iconic hero.
Staged as a pompous Gilbert and Sullivan musical pageant a la “The Mikado,” with a score by Michael Friedman (“Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson”), the entire “Cape Feare” episode is performed. In it, a young Bart Simpson (a wonderful Nicole Sumlin), his father Homer (a spot-on Trey Gilpin), mother Marge (Beth Woods) and sister Lisa (Abigail Anika Svigelj) are stalked by the murderous Sideshow Bob/Mr. Burns (Evan Thompson) and his henchmen Itchy (Cathleen O’Malley) and Scratchy (Tim Keo).
All this, with the addition of Megan Elk, performing operatically in classical Japanese Noh style, is done in eerie Simpsons-inspired masks and costuming, designed by Chialla Geib-Fenske and Inda Blatch-Gelb, and accompanied by the haunting rhythms of musicians Brad Wyner and Ryan McDermott.
Some degree of Simpsons literacy, a working knowledge of the 1991 Martin Scorsese film “Cape Fear” on which the Simpsons episode is based, and a passing familiarity with contemporary pop music are certainly pluses when watching this show, if not required.
What is required is stamina, for this clever play is given a rather plodding production.
Hindered by voices that often fail to reach beyond the sixth row of seating in this cavernous theater, it is hard to pick up on many of the play’s clever references, access its layers of serious intention, or feel engaged in the witty exchanges between members of this talented troupe. Too much of the intrigue and momentum generated in Act 1 dissipates during a leaden and occasionally clumsy Act 2 and drags to a conclusion in an Act 3 that seems to go on forever.
Midway through, when the touring theater troupe is working on the staging of “Cape Feare,” they discuss amping up the realism. “Meaningless entertainment,” someone suggests, “is actually really hard.” So, apparently, is doing meaningful entertainment in the guise of something meaningless. CV
WHAT: “Mr. Burns, A Post-Electric Play”
WHERE: Cleveland Public Theatre, 6415 Detroit Ave., Cleveland
WHEN: Through March 5
TICKETS & INFO: $12-$30. Call 216-631-2727 or visit cptonline.org
Bob Abelman covers theater and cultural arts for the Cleveland Jewish News. Follow Bob at Facebook.com/BobAbelman3.
Originally published in the Cleveland Jewish News on Feb. 21, 2016.
Lead image: From left, Beth Wood, Nicole Sumlin, Abigail Anika Smigelj, Trey Gilpin PHOTO | Steve Wagner