Dario Ladani Sanchez

Surviving with the Simpsons

Review of Mr. Burns, a post-electric play, Yale School of Drama

Post-disaster stories—often called ‘post-apocalyptic’—are fairly common these days. Some kind of global catastrophe—which may involve zombies, aliens, superheroes, angels, demons, mutants, environmental mismanagement, war, or what-have-you—destroys the world as we know it and we get to imagine what kind of world will follow. Anne Washburn’s Mr. Burns, a post-electric play, the first show of the Yale School of Drama’s 2019-20 season, varies the approach with interesting if not always intelligible results. It’s a play less about how humans endure in survivalist mode, and more about how the cultural reference points we may take for granted—like television and theater—will be affected. The play’s effect, in this busy production directed by Kat Yen, is at times funny, at times confusing, and finally beautiful, and its tone seems to be one of reflection with gestures at satire and suspense.

The phrase “post-electric” is key. Without electricity—which has been wiped out somehow and which causes nuclear power plants to fail with calamitous results—people can’t watch anything except each other. The play opens with a small group gathered around a makeshift hearth: a fire in a trash can. Sitting on mismatched chairs, including a sofa, Matt (Anthony Holiday), Maria (Ilia Isorelýs Paulino) and Jenny (Madeline Seidman) are reminiscing about a certain episode of Matt Groening’s celebrated cartoon phenomenon, The Simpsons (the episode that’s a take-off on the film Cape Fear) while Sam (Reed Northrup) patrols the perimeter with a gun. Eventually they are joined by Gibson (Dario Ladani Sanchez), a wanderer who, after being treated at first with fear and suspicion, reports on his travels and what he’s seen of devastated areas, not too far from the theater we’re in.

Jenny (Madeline Seidman), Matt IAnthony Holiday), Maria (Ilia Isorelýs Paulino), Sam (Reed Northrup) in Yale School of Drama’s production of Mr Burns by Anne Washburn, directed by Kat Yen (photo by T. Charles Erickson)

Jenny (Madeline Seidman), Matt IAnthony Holiday), Maria (Ilia Isorelýs Paulino), Sam (Reed Northrup) in Yale School of Drama’s production of Mr Burns by Anne Washburn, directed by Kat Yen (photo by T. Charles Erickson)

What emerges is a vague sense of how the world is fairing after a major meltdown. Most of which we can easily imagine thanks to all those apocalyptic films we’ve seen. Judging by their speech, the group is twentysomething and maintain their relation to the recent past in two ways: by recalling The Simpsons episode as a common reference point—Gibson, who claims he never saw an entire episode of the show, manages some details as well and does a killer Marge impression—and by reading lists of ten names apiece, with ages provided. This rollcall of the most valued dead or missing serves as a kind of memorial. We have a sense of randomness, of survival by sheer chance.

The best aspect of the opening scene—the play is comprised of three scenes in two acts—is the engaging recall of the “Cape Fear episode” (audience members with no knowledge of The Simpsons may find this opaque but entertaining). The comedy of the dialogue doesn’t seem a denial of the direness of the situation but rather the kind of bond that residents of McLuhan’s “global village” would exercise. And that sentiment must sustain us through the other scene of Act 1.

The long second scene is where things get murkier. Now joined by Colleen (Ciara Monique) who acts as director and Quincy (Jessy Yates) who is playing a woman who wants to take a bath as only women in TV commercials can, the group has become a troupe. They enact Simpsons episodes—like “Heretic Homer”—with commercials included. Rival troupes are discussed with a distressed sense of how to improve what we would call the market share. The main avenue to a successful show seems to be not talent or inspiration but budget, for props and effects and to “buy lines.” Apparently, post-electric writers will be those who can recall the lines from shows with accuracy, lines which have a certain talismanic appeal to the audience and players alike.

All this information comes to us through dialogue that also includes a Simpsons scene featuring Homer (played by Matt) and two FBI Agents (played by Colleen and Maria), the bath commercial (which includes Gibson as “Loving Husband,” and comedic efforts at Foley effects), and a spirited dance number by the entire cast that presents an imaginative mix-up of bits of hits with inventive moves (choreography by Michael Raine). All the movement—and the singing, particularly by Paulino, Sanchez, and Yates—is a welcome relief from the backstage chatter that Washburn exploits at length. The scene ends with the kind of climax that seems more gratuitous than dramatic.

Mr Burns (John Evans Reese), background; Homer (Madeline Seidman), Bart (Ciara Monique), Marge (Anthony Holiday), foreground in Yale School of Drama production of Mr. Burns (photo by T. Charles Erickson)

Mr Burns (John Evans Reese), background; Homer (Madeline Seidman), Bart (Ciara Monique), Marge (Anthony Holiday), foreground in Yale School of Drama production of Mr. Burns (photo by T. Charles Erickson)

After intermission we get the final scene—75 years into the future—where the descendants of the people we’ve already met, presumably, are staging a musical pageant. It’s Simpsons-themed, of course, and retains elements from the TV-recall of Scene 2. Sideshow Bob, the evil threat in the “Cape Fear episode,” has morphed into Mr. Burns (John Evans Reese), a dastardly villain who, on the show, is Homer’s boss and the owner of a nuclear power plant. The showdown, with swords drawn, plays like Captain Hook vs. his nemesis Peter Pan, here Bart (Monique), with both Reese and Monique excellent in their multilayered roles. The confrontation takes place (as does the climax of the “Cape Fear episode”) on a ship (cleverly designed by scenic designer Bridget Lindsay) after Bart’s hapless family—Marge (Holiday), Lisa (Northrup), Homer (Seidman), and little Maggie (a doll)—have been ruthlessly dispatched.

The songs, accompanied by Liam Bellman-Sharpe, composer, and Bel Ben Mamoun, music director, in gowns with skullcaps, playing large, intricate, makeshift instruments, are a pastiche as well, with an elevated score from Michael Friedman. The irony that TV should “evolve” into Broadway-esque ritual is funny and, depending on your sensibilities, inspiring. Paulino, garbed like a sideshow Lady Liberty, impresses with the range of her vocals and her statuesque bearing. The costume for Mr. Burns is an even more striking fantasia, while the possible antecedents for other costumes (all by Stephen Marks) make for interesting conjecture. What, we may wonder, are the source materials for shows at some future point near the end of our century?

The cast of Mr. Burns works the show’s material as a gifted ensemble should. Presented in the round at the Iseman Theater, the play keeps us involved even when it seems to indulge itself rather enlighten. The prospect of playing a makeshift troupe suits this young cast and vice versa. To bring off so well a show with so many moving parts and such an amorphous sense of mise en scène is a feat, and the final act—which inspires both gravitas and glee—shows director Yen’s knowing grasp of how theater must often transcend or transform its material. All for the sake of some unnamed quality that may endure even longer than The Simpsons.

 

Mr. Burns, a post-electric play
By Anne Washburn
Score by Michael Friedman
Lyrics by Anne Washburn
Additional music by Liam Bellman-Sharpe
Directed by Kat Yen

Choreographer: Michael Raine; Music Director: Bel Ben Mamoun; Scenic Designer: Bridget Lindsay; Costume Designer: Stephen Marks; Lighting Designer: Riva Fairhall; Sound Designer: Daniela Hart; Projection Installation Designer: Erin Sullivan; Production Dramaturg: Patrick Denney; Technical Director: Matthew Lewis; Stage Manager: Amanda Luke

Cast: Anthony Holiday, Ciara Monique, Reed Northrup, Ilia Isorelýs Paulino, John Evans Reese, Dario Ladani Sanchez, Madeline Seidman, Jessy Yates

Musicians: Liam Bellman-Sharpe, Bel Ben Mamoun

Yale School of Drama
October 26-November 1, 2019

Office Politics

Review of Fade, Yale Cabaret

What is a community? Is it people who live in the same place, people who work in the same place or have the same job or pursue the same activities? Is it anyone of the same ethnicity, or who speaks the same language or worships the same God or values the same things? The term can apply to a number of situations, not all of which are commensurate. And the question of who belongs to the community and who doesn’t can be a contested matter.

In Fade, a play by Tanya Saracho at the Yale Cabaret, directed by Kat Yen, the question of whether or not the two characters belong to a community is key to the drama. Lucia (Juliana Aiden Martínez) is a new “token hire” on a team of writers developing a television show. Everyone else is white and male, and Lucia, as a female of color, feels both excitement at the opportunity and dismay at the racist perceptions of her colleagues. She reaches out to Abel (Dario Ladani Sánchez), a custodian, because they “look the same” as nonwhite workers.

Abel (Dario Ladani Sanchez), Lucia (Juliana Aiden Martinez) (photos courtesy of Yale Cabaret)

Abel (Dario Ladani Sanchez), Lucia (Juliana Aiden Martinez) (photos courtesy of Yale Cabaret)

Abel knows all-too-well that, whether or not he and Lucia share a community—through Mexican heritage, the Spanish language, or by being nonwhite in a white man’s world—they are not colleagues. Her job station is well above his, and yet she’s willing to use a range of appeals—helpless female to capable male, companionable co-worker, fellow underappreciated employee of color, and possibly even sympathetic friend—to win him over. We see Abel, played quite effectively by Sánchez with wary charm, overcome his misgivings and resentment to be on Lucia’s side. While not a romantic comedy, there are certain elements that suggest we could be headed that way. In an earlier era, a story about a woman on her way up would find a possible love interest/nemesis in a man, manly in a traditional way, who makes her question why she puts her job before her heart. This isn’t that era.

In this era, a woman such as Lucia never has a thought that isn’t all about herself. She is a nonstop font of information about what’s happening in her world. A published novelist who should be working on her second novel, she has taken a job that she feels is beneath her—hence, perhaps, the ease with which she claims kinship with Abel—and is trying to cope. The play works so well at the Cabaret because of Martínez’s wonderful performance, mercurial and various while always seeming to be utterly genuine. Abel, who shows up every night to clean the offices, never knows what he’ll find—Lucia working late on an assignment, or brooding over slights at a meeting, or waiting to take a late night call from her boss in another time-zone, or going into deep angst after finally besting her main rival on the team. Each time, playful, distressed, or beseeching, she manages to draw him into her situation.

Lucia (Juliana Aiden Martinez)

Lucia (Juliana Aiden Martinez)

Along the way, Abel parcels out bits of information about himself, but he’s not the kind to openly confide. When he finally does render a very dramatic evocation of an event from his past, he worries that he has given away too much. He has cause for concern.

What makes the play more than simply a drama of how difficult mismatched friendship can be is the context of the world Saracho is presenting. It’s a world where something that might unite people—a shared cultural background, a first-language in common—can also be divisive if such markers, often used to ghettoize people, are feared as efforts to pigeonhole or label. Lucia and Abel did not originate in the same neighborhoods, and the differences play not only into what they can assume about each other culturally but who they are at work. No one, we might believe, is wholly defined by their occupation, but neither can a workplace friendship ever lose sight of what it means to be on the job. Saracho applies such pressure points usefully throughout without ever making the story feel too manipulated.

Set in an office space that looks like an open cage, Fade knowingly evokes the workplace as both a source of security and a place of anxious efforts to be oneself and to better oneself. The only real risk for Abel is to be caught slacking off (though he does have a secret he shouldn’t divulge); the risk for Lucia is that her attempts to assert herself creatively may backfire. In that she shares her precarious position with other communities—women in the workplace, persons of color expected to be “representative” of a poorly understood demographic—and as such we’re on her side, up to a point. That point is reached, dramatically, in a way that any member of yet another community—writers—might well recognize, with different views. Does anyone own the copyright on their own experience?

Well-paced by director Kat Yen, Fade lets tension and entertainment support one another as we learn more about these characters on their paths of support and exposure. In the end, Saracho leaves us with the realization that betrayal may simply be part of a writer’s job.

 

Fade
By Tanya Saracho
Directed by Kat Yen
Proposed by Juliana Aiden Martínez

Producer: Laurie Ortega-Murphy; Stage Manager: Zachry J. Bailey; Dramaturg: Nahuel Telleria; Set Designer: Stephanie Osin Cohen; Costume Designer: April M. Hickman; Lighting Designer: Evan Christian Anderson; Sound Designer: Kat Yen; Technical Director: Yara Yarashevich

Cast: Juliana Aiden Martínez, Dario Ladani Sánchez

Yale Cabaret
September 20-22, 2018