Anne Washburn’s MR BURNS: A POST-ELECTRIC PLAY presents three intriguing scenarios. Set a few months, a number of years, and several generations after a disease has wiped out perhaps 99.7% of the U.S. population, the three acts see characters remembering and reusing pop cultural memory in a post-apocalyptic world.
In other productions and in Washburn’s script, the first act takes place around a campfire as characters attempt to piece together an episode of The Simpsons from memory. As written and as usually performed, the dialog is naturalistic: these are recognizable characters having an almost-recognizable conversation in world that’s slowly revealed to be very different. Indeed, much of the dialog was taken verbatim from conversations among members of the first cast.
In director Yury Urnov’s production for the Wilma, the action is moved inside a claustrophobic shipping container (set design by Misha Kachman), illuminated by many battery-powered devices. Urnov and lightning designer Thom Weaver seem to have ignored the subtitle: theirs is a still-pretty-electric play.
Similarly, members of Wilma’s talented Hot House ensemble (Ross Beschler, Sarah Gilko, Jered McLenigan, Campbell O’Hara, Brett Ashley Robinson, Lindsay Smalling, and Mary Tuomanen) eschew naturalism, taking multiple opportunities to dial up the tension and emotion of the act. A lightning flash reveals a newcomer in the style of a Simpsons Halloween episode, and the acting more resembles this genre than a campfire chat.
Urmov’s interpolations and the ensemble’s style rob the script of its relatable familiarity. In attempting to heighten the emotion of the dialog and setting, the production does the opposite.
The hyper-emotive style works better in the second and third acts, which present performances within the performances. The Wilma cast entertain in physical performances, reassembling snippets of pop culture circa 2010 (and reminding us that even recent pop culture references can become quickly dated). Washburn is raising questions about storytelling: why we do it, how texts from different periods are adapted over time, how human creations add onto each other and transmutate previous iterations, how even the most lowbrow creations contain elements of classic stories that help us navigate the world.
But even the best productions of the work face a challenge in bringing coherence to the three disparate realities and retaining the audience’s attention to these provocative questions. The Wilma’s stretched out three-hour staging discards the third act score by Michael Friedman (Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson), which made a musical ritual of the far future Simpsons tale. Using new music by local composer Michael Kiley, Urmov removes some of the overwrought ceremonial majesty from the act, presenting it more like an amateur production of a misbegotten Simpsons episode (Jered McLenigan plays a wonderfully spirited devil as Mr Burns).
At the Wilma, the three acts maintain a coherent style, but this masks the power and themes of Washburn’s work—the near-future first act feels in some ways less familiar than the far-distant third act. Doh.
[The Wilma Theater] October 23-November 11, 2018; https://www.wilmatheater.org/production/mr-burns-post-electric-play