By Karen Topham, photo by Charles Osgood
Move over, cockroaches. If we take our cues from Anne Washburn’s Mr.Burns, a Post-Electric Play, there will be another ubiquitous survivor of the apocalypse: The Simpsons. Yes, the title refers to that Mr. Burns, and our favorite yellow-skinned family plays a major part in the “post-electric” world.
Washburn’s 2012 play (with a score by Michael Friedman) is brilliant, engaging, thought-provoking, and unlike anything I have ever seen before in a theatre. The world as we know it has ended thanks to some catastrophe that has led to a series of meltdowns in our nation’s nuclear power plants which, in turn, wipe out the power grid and kill the vast majority of Americans. (One guess proffered about the number of survivors is about one million.) What they don’t kill, as we quickly see in a first scene featuring a group of people huddled around a campfire worried about the potential appearance of violent marauding thieves, is the human need to tell stories. As the fire burns, the group—who maintain lists of important people in their lives to ask newcomers about in the vain hope that someone might have crossed paths with them—comes together around The Simpsons as a universally known brand of entertainment, trying to remember the specific plot of the “Cape Feare” episode from the show’s fifth season and reminding each other of key lines and plot points in order to tell the story most effectively.
Act Two takes place seven years later in a world in which a single unopened can of Diet Coke—if you can find one—can be bartered for two lithium batteries, and we see that same group of people has become a wandering theatre troupe that specializes in putting on plays based on Simpsons episodes (along with homemade “commercials”). Their version of the “Cape Feare” episode becomes an homage to small joys no longer accessible, from car trips to fast food (one commercial is basically food porn). They are not alone: an entire economy has sprung up relating to performing Simpsons shows using whatever props and costume pieces can be scrounged up. By Act Three, which takes place 75 years after that, the initial plays and the show that spawned them have passed into the emerging new culture as legends. We see a company performing a much more realized version of “Cape Feare,” one with a strong theme of capitalism’s role in the degradation of society. In it, a demonic Mr. Burns kidnaps the entire family and (with the help of Itchy and Scratchy, the nasty-violent mouse and cat who featured in a cartoon-within-a-cartoon on The Simpsons) kills the rest of the family before engaging in a final showdown with Bart, the one he hates the most.
This remarkably entertaining play was one of Theater Wit’s biggest hits, which would make it a great choice for a revival even if it were not about society rebuilding itself after a monumental disaster…which links it directly to the reopening of theatres after the COVID shutdown. Wit Artistic Director Jeremy Wechsler directs a very impressive cast, each of whom plays multiple roles and each of whom has moments to shine. Of particular note are Will Wilhelm, whose “Jenny” provides both poignancy and humor in the early scenes and who leads the ensemble in the operatic production of the final act; Jonah D. Winston, who joins the first act group as a visitor (and sings a memorable verse from “Three Little Maids From School”) and whose character has a complete and very believable breakdown in Act Two; and Andrew Jessup, whose “Mr. Burns” is a stellar villain. (This is not to take anything away from Leslie Ann Sheppard, Eileen Doan, Tina Muñoz Pandya, and Ana Silva, all of whom are outstanding in this well-crafted play, which veers from quiet drama to silly comedy to frenetic dancing…sometimes all in one scene.) Music Director Eugene Dizon and Choreographer Brigitte Ditmars make both the Act Three opera/rap/finale and a second act “commercial” featuring snippets of songs like “Bad Romance,” “Single Ladies,” and “Living La Vida Loca” work perfectly. Of the latter, the company’s sometimes-misremembered lyrics and odd musical juxtapositions cause one character to opine, “No motivations, no consequences: that is the point of the cartoon. Where else can we get that?” For people living with the consequences of horrific decisions made by others, that thought must indeed be tempting.
In addition to Wechsler, Dizon, and Ditmars, other members of the design team have done yeoman work. Joe Schermoly’s bare-bones campsite in the immediate aftermath of the catastrophe gives way to a jury-rigged performance space in Act Two before we see a well-defined houseboat set in Act Three, featuring huge clouds above and mechanized waves below, all lit dynamically by Heather Gilbert, who remains firmly within the “post-electric” thing until the third act (by which time in the plot some power may have been restored anyway). Costume Designers Mara Blumenfeld and Mieka Van Der Ploeg deserve their own review for the sheer creativity of their costuming, especially in Act Three, where we see (for example) a “found items” Bart costume made of, among other things, red solo cups and tortilla chip bags. There is also some great fight choreography by David Wooley, Jon Beal, and Kai Young.
Mr. Burns, a Post-Electric Play is now playing at Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont Ave, Chicago, through Oct 31. Tickets are available from Theater Wit or at 773-975-8150.