Monday, September 07, 2015

Mr. Burns

(From L to R) Amanda Salazar, Katie Rubin, Jouni Kirjola,
Dena Martinez, John P. Lamb, Elizabeth Holzman
Remember “Fahrenheit 451,” when all the books had been destroyed and a little enclave of people, each of whom had memorized a specific book, were teaching that book to a young person so that the words could continue?

That’s kind of how Anne Washburn’s “Mr. Burns: a Post Electric Play,” now at Capital Stage,  begins. There has been a great apocalyptic event and much of the world has been destroyed. Survivors are finding each other in small groups.

The show, directed by new Artistic Director Michael Stevenson, opens around a fire where a group of survivors tries to remember “Cape Feare,” their favorite “Simpsons” episode, in which Sideshow Bob stalks Bart Simpson with threats to kill him. For the shell-shocked survivors, it’s a bit of normality that helps them push away their fears … for the moment.

Matt (John P. Lamb) and Jenny (Katie Rubin) lead off, yelling lines at each other, as they try to get the show in sequence, with the nervous Maria (Dena Martinez) reacting in delight.

In an interview, Washburn explained that in trying to brainstorm ideas for a script, “We tasked the writers with remembering ‘Simpsons’ episodes, and the dialogue around the remembering of the episode in the first act is largely verbatim from these sessions.”

Interrupting the delight of the group is a new arrival, Gibson (Kirk Blackinton) who has been traveling across the country assessing the damage. The action takes a very somber tone as they learn which cities he has visited and bring out their book of lists to ask if, maybe, somehow, he has come across one of their loved ones.

Eventually Gibson, too, joins in the delight of remembering a beloved television episode.

Joining Lamb, Rubin, Blackinton and Martinez in this top-notch cast are Jouni Kirjola as Sam, Tiffanie Mack as Colleen, Amanda Salazar as Quincy and Elizabeth Holzman as Mrs. Krabappel.

This is a show that will delight fans of “The Simpsons” and perhaps confuse those who don’t know the popular cartoon. It is riddled with references to the cartoon and to the movie “Cape Fear,” on which the episode is based. As someone who only watched the show in the first couple of seasons (there have been 28 seasons!), I know I missed a lot of the references at which many in the audience laughed.

The enigmatic second act, taking place seven years after Act 1, finds a post-apocalyptic theater company rehearsing a show, which includes reminiscing about food and drink they once had (“at this point all I care about my imaginary alcohol is that it is aged”), obsessing on where Diet Cokes have gone (“I know a guy in Wichita who has a stash of Diet Cokes and do you know what he’s selling them for? Lithium batteries, two a can”) and comparing their productions of “Simpsons” episodes with another company’s productions.

The high point in this act is the parody of “The Simpsons” theme song.

If Act 2 left many of us scratching our heads trying to figure out its meaning, Act 3 brought it all together in a fully staged all-musical version of “Cape Feare,” where Sideshow Bob has, for some unexplained reason, become Homer Simpson’s boss, Mr. Burns, a tour-de-force performance by Kirjola (with face makeup reminiscent of Batman’s Joker). Salazar, too, shines as Bart, with Martinez in a lovely Marge wig and Rubin showing all the spunk of Lisa.

Special mention should be made of Jonathan Williams’ set design which, particularly in Act 3, seems identical to the cartoon. Gail Russell must have had a great time designing all those marvelous costumes!

This is not a show for everyone. The script assumes that the audience is already familiar with not only the major “Simpsons” characters but also the minor ones, like Itchy and Scratchy and Apu.
Still, love it or not, there is no denying that the actors give outstanding performances. If “The Simpsons” is your cup of tea, you don’t want to miss this one.

Playwright Washburn perhaps rightly predicts that were we to find ourselves in a similar situation today what we would cling to is not the Bible or Shakespeare, but popular cartoon characters to anchor our memories to a previous, happier time.

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