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.
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.
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