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Mr. Burns, a Post Electric Play
a Musical
by Anne Washburn, score by Michael Friedman

COMPANY : Oglethorpe University Theatre Department [WEBSITE]
VENUE : Conant Performing Arts Center [WEBSITE]
ID# 5162

SHOWING : October 20, 2017 - October 29, 2017



Civilization as we know it has collapsed. There is no electricity and a nuclear meltdown is imminent. People scavenge to live, desperate to find their loved ones. A band of survivors huddle around a campfire and began to piece together an episode of "The Simpsons" entirely from memory. 7 years later, this and other snippets of pop culture have become the live entertainment of a post-apocalyptic society sincerely trying to hold onto its past. And 75 years after that, these stories have transformed to meet the needs of a different audience, giving birth to new forms of culture and offering humankind the inspiration to keep going. Anne Washburn’s imaginative dark comedy "Mr. Burns" is part apocalyptic tale, part musical, part homage to live theater, and part ode to "The Simpsons." The play propels us forward nearly a century, following a new civilization stumbling into its future. Oglethorpe University Theatre is proud to present the Atlanta premiere of this unique and thought-provoking play.

Director Matt Huff
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A Most Eclectic Play
by playgoer
Sunday, October 29, 2017
Anne Washburn’s "Mr. Burns, a Post Electric Play" is a strange beast. I’m not sure who would find it more frustrating: those who do not know "The Simpsons" at all or those who know it well. In the first act, we see a bunch of post-semi-apocalyptic campers trying to reassemble the plot of the "Cape Feare" episode of "The Simpsons" from their memories, getting about halfway through. In the second act, seven years later, these people and a couple of others are rehearsing a play version of this episode, but spend most of their time on extended musical ads they are alternating with a tiny bit of the middle of the "Cape Feare" plot. In the third act, 75 years later, we get a musicalized version of the remainder of the episode with an altered, tragedy-tinged plot and a bleakly hopeful ending. If you know the episode well, the first act could be an excruciating experience of characters learning what you already know; if you’re not a "Simpsons" fan, the same act one exposition could amount to "who cares?"

We never learn what conditions resulted in people trekking cross-country, passing through deserted cities and bypassing blockades as nuclear plant after nuclear plant implodes after the collapse of the electrical grid. The people seem to join together in informal bands for various amounts of time. In the first act, we meet a stranger encountering a group that’s been together for at least a couple of weeks. The people trade alphabetical lists of names and ages of people whose fates they would like to determine.

In the second act, these people and a couple of others have formed a touring acting troupe that performs snippets of "The Simpsons" and other works, paying for individual lines. A competing troupe is more successful and has rights to more of the episodes. The ending of the act suggests that an unfriendly takeover may be about to occur.

The third act shows actors in half-masks performing a nightmare version of the portion of "Cape Feare" that most closely echoes the movie "Cape Fear." It’s mostly sung, using snippets of Gilbert & Sullivan and TV theme music in addition to rap and a LOT of choral exposition. In Oglethorpe University’s production, the masks and solo voices competing with massed choral sounds prevent clear understanding of what is being sung. The action is very serious and ends with a hint of the return of human-powered electricity.

Matt Huff has directed the play effectively, adding a brooding, menacing tone to the first act before moving on to more active blocking in the next two acts. Musical director Michael Monroe has also done a fine job, with some wonderful a cappella singing in the second act. Singing in the third act isn’t as good, primarily because the largely different cast members in this act don’t have voices as strong and have to contend with a lot of distracting sounds, including foot stomps in Bubba Carr’s somewhat basic choreography.

Jon Nooner’s set design has a bit of a cobbled-together look, possibly in keeping with the premise that civilization has largely disintegrated. The first act has just a ratty sofa, a log segment, a folding metal chair, and a barstool for seating, around a realistic-looking campfire. The second act backs the set with what looks like a leftover wall of windows from the "Arcadia" set, with a revolving unit in front of it functioning as a set for "The Simpsons." A car front end used for a commercial is the most impressive part of this set, although a candle-lit TV chassis is also pretty nifty (props by the group of Lindsey Thomaston, D’Zerrea Richarte, and Kaylee Rice). In the third act, a curtain showing "Simpsons" silhouettes opens to reveal a set representing the prow and cabin of a boat. Candles are spread at the lip of the stage and blue fabric is waved to represent the waters of a rapid. The final reveal shows a contraption above the stage that is the most impressive set piece of this act.

D. Connor McVey’s lighting design ably represents an electricity-free society for most of the show. The campfire effect in the first act is lovely, with subtle changes to illuminate action. Lighting is more general in the second act, but with some dappled areas that would suggest the outdoors if the set weren’t backed by what is obviously a building. Lighting is very dim for most of the third act, working with the half masks to help obscure what is being sung. A shadow sequence in the cabin of the boat is nicely implemented, and the final reveal is just this side of stunning. But prior to this, there have been a few times when lights suddenly illuminate previously dim sections of the stage, ruining the effect of candlelight being the sole means of illumination.

Katy Monroe’s costume design and Timothy Harland’s mask design both work, with the second act Simpsons costumes especially effective with their bright colors and bugged-out eyeglasses to represent cartoon characters. The third act’s masks give a nod to Greek tragedy as much as to "The Simpsons" artwork, helping to dampen the comedic expectations one might have of a "Simpsons"-inspired work.

The sound design by Tabatha Mele and Jon Nooner is wonderful in terms of its sound effects. The first act’s soundscape is filled with evening forest sounds. The second act has a nice offstage effect of water running in a bath, augmented by steam blown onstage. Sound in the third act is consequently a disappointment, with musical accompaniment and a miked offstage chorus member adding to the unbalanced sound mix that leaves lyrics stuck in aural mud.

Performances are very good in the first act. Clarence Atsma has tons of energy as Matt, the main recounter of the "Cape Feare" plot, and Alex Ray equals him in energy as the sweet-voiced stranger Gibson. Marissa Williams and Sydney Stanley add distinct portrayals on the distaff side, and Ethan Weathersbee holds his own. In the second act, these actors continue their strong portrayals, with Marissa Williams’ performance particularly impressive in her "Simpsons" costume. The cast is augmented by Kaitlyn Turner as a diminutive but forceful director and Taylor Roberts as a somewhat bland and indistinctly enunciating actress in a commercial. In act three, things pretty much fall apart. Alex Ray still has lots of energy as Mr. Burns, but the Simpson family doesn’t. Since we can’t hear anyone distinctly for large portions of the time, it’s difficult to get involved in this act.

"Mr. Burns, a Post Electric Play" takes as its springboard Jon Vitti’s 1993 teleplay for the "Cape Feare" episode of "The Simpsons." It’s not funny and fast-moving like the teleplay, though. It’s slow-going, with extraneous commercial segments in act two that drag on more than any snappy commercial on TV, with the mash-up of popular songs from the recent past perhaps intended to illustrate how memory conflates bits and pieces of the past to create inaccurate recreations of reality. The third act just goes off the deep end.

Anne Washburn’s play takes an interesting concept and mauls it almost beyond recognition. Oglethorpe University’s production is well-intentioned, but doesn’t ultimately transcend the problematic material. The target audience seems to be intellectual hipsters who watched "The Simpsons" in their formative years and delight in speculative fan fiction, while simultaneously enjoying ponderous musicalizations of familiar material. Sure sounds like a tiny target audience to me. [POST A COMMENT REGARDING THIS REVIEW]


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