Fort Worth — You hear a Big Bang in the night, and commando-roll out of bed…to find the known world has come apart.
A war? A robot rebellion? It doesn’t matter. Life pares down to essential needs: flashlights , batteries, guns, beer…and stories.
Stories? Yes, stories, told around a campfire in Anne Washburn’s absorbing, funny, whistling-in-the-dark Mr. Burns, a post-electric play, now at Stage West for its regional premiere. This quirky and engaging tale begins with a small band of survivors huddled around a trash-can fire (lighting by Scott Davis), trying for total recall of a classic story they all would know. And sorry, Will Shakespeare, it isn’t Hamlet but an episode of The Simpsons called “Cape Feare,” in which Sideshow Bob stalks our boy Bart with murderous intent. Only weeks into their post-apocalyptic world, it’s a bit of comfort and home that helps them push away their fears…for the moment.
Director Garret Storms leads a versatile cast of new and familiar faces who rise to the considerable demands of Washburn’s fast-patter script. The play cleverly evolves from a tale of survivors into a look at the role of theater itself (see our interview with the playwright here), needed more than ever in a world of relentlessly stark realities. Mr. Burns runs on a wildly alternating current that can be comic, grim or nerdily witty, sometimes in the same short burst of words. And with the sweet add-on of original songs by Washburn and composer Michael Friedman (The Fortress of Solitude, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson) in Act Two, this is a show that goes places we’d never have guessed from that start around the campfire.
Washburn claims Stephen King’s The Stand as an influence, but draws this very particular world along the lines of her own adventurous theatrical sensibility—with a dollop of the snarky Greeks, the raging Elizabethans and the ever-perky Gilbert and Sullivan thrown into the mix. Mr. Burns will keep you a little off-kilter all night—but in a good way.
Why The Simpsons? It’s “mindless entertainment,” says hardscrabble actress Quincy (Caroline Dubberly)—and that’s the point. “Meaning is everywhere,” she spits sarcastically; everyone carries a notebook filled with names of the people they’ve lost, but hope to find. What they all need now is a way to let go and forget everything for a while—in “the joy of a cartoon.”
The cast shines in the deceptively simple opening scene around the campfire. Jenny (Jessica Cavanagh), Matt (Ian Ferguson) and Maria (Kelsey Leigh Ervi) concentrate fiercely on their re-creation of the episode. Sam (Paul Taylor) is a quiet, watchful presence on the edge of the circle. The comic chatter is fun and frantic, yet at any noise everyone stops, breathing hard—and when a stranger’s voice calls out, guns appear until Gibson (Henry Greenberg) passes muster. Tragedy and comedy co-exist around the fire, and the actors make us feel every note of emotion. Almost lost in the shadows, a young girl (Mikaela Krantz) crouches and crawls at the edge of the group, and finally disappears in the gloom. No one seems to take note.
With a crash of thunder and static, we’re seven years down the road—but now our little band is a traveling theater troupe with a Simpsons-heavy repertoire. (Greenberg is a standout as Sideshow Bob.) The company includes stressed, hard-working Colleen (Krantz) and Edna (Amy Mills), and prickly Quincy (Dubberly). This is how they live, bartering entertainment for the “stuff” people still have (lithium batteries, duct tape). They drool over memories of good food and hot baths. Beset by rival Simpsons troupes, they step up their game, performing delightful all-singing, all-dancing TV commercials to go with each episode. (Choreography is by Blair Carrizales and director Storms.)
Mr. Burns has a light-footed kinetic energy that propels us straight into the surprising second act, which takes place several decades later. We can’t say too much about it, except that it contains bravura performances from both Taylor and Dubberly as “other” characters entirely. Happily, the whole boatload of plot and character is carried along on Friedman’s edgy-cool score—music director Aimee Hurst Borzath (of Stage West’s She Loves Me) and Joey Carter are on keyboards and percussion—and enriched by the imaginative costumes of designers Derek Whitener and Victor Newman Brockwell, who simply went to town on this one. Director Storms uses sound in various intriguing ways, and co-designed (with Nate Davis and Jim Covault) the gilded and goofy “computer guts” proscenium arch that frames the show.
EX-cellent, all of it.
What role will Bart Simpson play in this messy new world? Is post-electric Denver really hoarding the last stash of Diet Coke? Why is this play called Mr. Burns and not The Saga of Sideshow Bob? And does the human race get its act together, even a little bit? For answers to these and other questions…well, it’s a nice, pre-apocalypse world out there, and one click will get you a ticket. Enjoy.