Nobody would ever accuse Stage West of shying away from risk-taking in show programming. Over the years I have seen an enjoyably eclectic assortment of quirky, thought provoking, over the top and often intellectually rigorous work on their main stage. No apologies, full steam ahead. Some works turn out more memorable, more effective than others. Who else in the region would be so outrageous and bold as to mount a full production of Thornton Wilder’s chaotic, seldom-produced The Skin of Our Teeth?
Their current production, Anne Washburn’s Mr. Burns, a post-electric play, reminds me a lot of the Wilder albatross, or opus, depending on your perception, frame of reference, age and tolerance for non-linear performance with tons of au courant cultural insertions zooming by at hyper-caffeinated speeds. “Eye of the Tiger”, Britney Spears and “Thriller”? Both plays deal with civilization, its aftermath and detritus. Both engage in ritual-making and spirit-cleansing. Neither will please a non-adventuresome audience expecting a traditional storyline based on linear character development with logical conclusions and a neatly tied bow at fini pulling down the curtain. It just ain’t here, folks. And Mr. Burns? Trajectory into a barely-recognizable thespian stratosphere, would make Wilder so proud. I walked away from this show shaking my head, wondering what the content actually meant but enthralled with the engaging performances, the focused direction driving and weaving it together, the musical elements that sound like a capella Sondheim on double espressos, fantasy sets, otherworldly costumes and special effects enhancing the total impact with fresh charm and surprise. Mr. Burns offers one heck of a scintillating dramatic experience, whatever its content. I have a major disadvantage in attempting to review this show. It incorporates references and play-acting from The Simpsons television show throughout its three significant demarcated segments. Great if you recognize the allusions and references. Me? I’ve never seen The Simpsons. So, I have invited my trusted “Plus One” accompanying friend and intrepid watcher of multi-media entertainment, Jason Kane, to add comments relevant to The Simpsons content incorporation.
From Jason Kane: Practically anyone who attended college during the 90s got inevitable exposure to “The Simpsons” at some point. Whether it was the musical parodies (“A Streetcar Named Marge”, a Season Four highlight) or the yearly “Treehouse of Horror” installments, Homer, Marge, Lisa and Bart appeared on the dorm room TV’s on a regular basis.
Bart represented the perpetual adolescent (“Eat my shorts!”), while Homer was the lazy couch potato adult who salivated over every donut he saw. Every college dude wanted to be a little bit of both.
So it’s not too surprising to think that such groundling fodder would be something retold around a campfire once the lights went out around the globe.
Mr. Burns runs with this conceit, with a first act that shows a ragtag group of survivors—of a nuclear holocaust. Did Homer finally push the wrong button during an especially boring day working at Springfield’s reactor?—trying to remember one of their favorite episodes of “The Simpsons”. It’s classic storytelling around the campfire, with foggy details in occasional need of correction. Along with the stories of the ubiquitous yellow-skinned cartoon family, the play throws in shades of “The Walking Dead”, including mistrust of any newcomer and a nagging wonder about the survival of any lost loved ones.
The second part of the show, which takes place seven years after the first, finds the same gang rehearsing a performance that has morphed into a pop culture revue of sorts, which includes a segment of “Chart Hits”, a hit parade of 80s and 90s pop/R&B. The audience gets wooed along on a journey about storytelling, itself.
While it may be difficult for the Simpsons-uninitiated to get past the inside jokes they don’t know, Mr. Burns is less about a cartoon than it is about the need to remember. “Fame! I’m gonna live forever. Baby, remember my name.”
By the time we get to the third part of the story, 75 years after part two, “The Simpsons” family members have morphed into archetypes seen throughout literature (or weren’t they always?). Villains have consolidated. Shakespeare, opera, even the panto-esque imagery of Peter Pan join into the melee. A Greek Chorus appears. After all, the patriarch of the Simpson clan is named — Homer.
Mr. Burns inspires the occasional knowing laugh, just to prove to the rest of the audience that you get the references to Moe the Bartender or Chief Wiggum, but the power in Washburn’s storytelling is that ultimately “The Simpsons”, as art and ritual, can become a vehicle to remind us of the importance of remembering and connecting.
Both of us, Alexandra Bonifield and Jason Kane, urge you to see Mr. Burns ASAP and will hound you mercilessly if you miss this unique dramatic event. It runs through September 13.
Cast includes: Jessica Cavanagh, Ian Ferguson, Kelsey Leigh Ervi, Paul Taylor (Unleashed! Get ready!), Mikaela Krantz, Henry Greenberg, Caroline Dubberly and Amy Mills.
Set design: Nate Davis, Garret Storms, and Jim Covault, with lighting by Scott Davis and sound by Garret Storms. Costume design: Derek Whitener, Victor Newman Brockwell.
Tickets/Info: 817-784-9378, or http://www.stagewest.org
Photos by Buddy Myers