TheatreLAB’s “Mr. Burns a post-electric play“ gleefully imagines The Apocalyptic Simpsons.
In Annie Washburn’s Mr. Burns a Post-Electric Play, she presents the Greek Tragedy of The Simpsons. The universe couldn’t be more ready for a better examination of itself than through cartoon characters that crack us up.
Washburn has ingeniously tapped into our cultural Id. When Armageddon comes and we have to start over creating a different kind of society, we will reach for a cultural touchstone to which everyone can relate: the life and times of Bart Simpson.
There has been a series of nuclear disasters. We can see various Homer Simpsons drinking Duff Beer at the controls of nuclear power plants, passing out at the wheel before the nuclear cores explodes.
The Greek tragedy structure is brilliant. Every Act has its own genesis and ritual advancement. From terrified rebirth through crass commercialization, finally resting on elaborate ritual.
To capitalize on this three, one act structure, Deejay Gray, TheatreLAB’s Artistic Director and director of this skit, creatively advances the configuration of society by reconfiguring the stage for each act.
Gray starts in the round, a severely intimate configuration where the audience sits all around and envelopes the actors, watching each other across the circle as much as the play itself, where nomads tell stories around the fire.
Gray advances in Act II to a medieval thrust stage (where the stage thrusts out towards the audience from a fixed place, pulling back from intimacy and creating the fourth wall (the invisible barrier between actor and audience)) and finally ends up in Act III with the original Greek presentational proscenium stage where characters are farther away allowing their gestures to be big and obvious.
Tying this theory of new evolution together, we get to sit under Michael Todd’s beautiful and comforting canopy of thick, gorgeous, tree branches (Eco-smart rescues from our recent storm). Each act seems to be cocooned under it giving them more warmth and a consistency of primal evolution.
There is much singing. Musical Director Forrest Link has blended these voices beautifully and has arranged a delicious medley of songs for this over talented cast. One of the Acts is intelligently scored by Ms. Washburn’s lyrics and music by Michael Friedman.
In Act One, the world suffers from mass nuclear annihilation. Survivors migrate to safer places. In the short time roaming they have established rituals of acceptance.
To bond, they try to recreate their favorite Simpson episode, “Cape Feare,” a traumatic masterpiece featuring Sideshow Bob, played by the amazing Kelsey Grammer.
Cape Fear was a 1991 Robert DeNiro film when this Simpsons episode premiered. It was a remake of the classic 1962 Robert Mitchum film.
In the episode, Sideshow Bob takes the DiNiro/Mitchum role and seeks revenge against Bart for providing the testimony that jailed him years ago. Classic pieces of business in the television episode were the classic slapstick rake scene and the amazing physical comedy of Sideshow Bob, hiding under the Simpson’s car, being driven through a field of cactuses (or cacti for our English professors).
The group of survivors, led by Evan Nasteff, try their best to remember everything. Nasteff is as natural as he can be, semi-psychotically hitting perfect notes of confusion and joyous self-deprecation.
In Act II, seven years later, the group is a Simpsons’ theatrical troupe. They compete against other Simpson troupes and deal in the commerce of survivors being paid for their memories of actual Simpson dialogue.
More important than filming episodes, they work tirelessly to perfect the making of crass commercials, which obviously have more meaning for where the culture finds itself.
The whole Act feels like a classic Nietzschian argument inside television trivia talk. The episode is a trouble spot for the players. Slower than Acts I and II, more cerebral, harder to pin the core conceit down. Chandler Hubbard comes out best finding a realistic rant against the insanity of numbness.
Act III takes place 75 years later and provides surprises and a sarcastic send up of Greek Tragedy and features, as do portions of Acts I and II, the gifted vocal talents of Dan Cimo and Jessi Johnson. They play, respectively, Mr. Burns and Bart. They are both knock outs.
It’s about time Jessi Johnson had a break out role. She delivers the goods. The role of Bart allows her to show off very nice acting skills and a heartbreaking song delivery. An emotional singer who doesn’t gesticulate all over the place, she is cool and sassy.
Cimo keeps much of the score together with his gorgeous dependable voice. Burns is a complicated person and a complicated role. Cimo handles the comedy well and is creative in his choices.
Nasteff and Hubbard get to play Itchy and Scratchy as go-go dancers in Apocalyptic Greek Hell. It’s exactly the right place for them in the evolutionary scheme. Nasteff and Hubbard bite right into it. Very funny.
Audra Honaker racks up quite a lot of wonderful moments. Sprung tighter than a clock as a Survivor and unwound as a no nonsense Lisa, Honaker is always smart with great timing and vocal skills.
Maggie Bavolock turns the heat up to 11 in the Survivor scene with a killer monologue and kicks the vocals throughout. Heather Falks sweetly serenades the evening long and throws her gravitas around in strong women roles.
The singing is good. The acting is good. The set is good. The lights were in my eyes. Should have been in a side seat. I know it’s hard to spin the set and prevent blinding your audience, Ashley Swiger, but I avoided stage left for that very reason.
The Sound Design by Lucien Restivo was delectable. From the familiar TV theme music to the creepy crawly sounds of terror in the night, Restivo made sure the ear was as busy as the eye.
Throughout, the costuming by Emily Atkins was superior and worked so well in creating the theme. The excellent wigs and masks added vital authenticity.
The theme, the pitch, the pace and the flow are all the work of Director Deejay Gray. He shows much skill in keeping all three acts fluid and interesting. He stages smartly and creatively.
Biggest surprise? 90% of the seats on opening night were filled with non theatre type Millennials (we use to call them Twenty Somethings).
The generalization is that young people don’t go to the theatre. It doesn’t rank high on their top entertainment choices.
And yet, there they were.
I don’t buy into plays being age conceited. This play has a younger drive but it’s accessible to all. I think much of the phenomena has to do with TheatreLAB being cool, downtown becoming cool, a place to do things. Whatever reason it is refreshing to see young people in the theatre. Most theatre companies rely on senior citizen patronage.
The Basement is a character all its own. Intimacy. Immediacy. Nowhere to hide. A splendid place for this show.
GO. RIGHT AWAY. GO.
Top image by Birgitte Dodd Tingley
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