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A CurtainUp Review
Mr. Burns, A Post-Electric Play
By Elyse Sommer
Dystopian novels are one of the best-selling genres at Amazon, itself a sort of cataclysmic invader of the world of book publishing. Movies and plays set in a scary near or distant future have been with us for a long time. But Anne Washburn's use of an episode from the long-running animated hit, The Simpsons, as the yellow brick road that lets the survivors of a horrific catastrophe endure the fear and despair shortly after that event, and years later rebuild their lives even though they must do so without electricity.
As explained in her own introduction to the play, that episode is Cape Feare, which in itself was a spoof of Martin Scorsece's a famous movie, Cape Fear. In naming her play for the wicked witch equivalent in The Simpsons she is making the animated cartoon an enduring comfort food provider — first to help the survivors take their minds of pain and fear shortly after the catastrophic event, and further along in a life without electricity, as an occupational survival tactic.
This travelogue through over 80 years in a dark and dismal world via the satiric cartoon series, The Simpsons is indeed intriguing. However, it's going to have audiences divided between the extravagantly enthusiastic and the more exasparated than exhilarated naysayers, with the enthusiasts possibly having the edge.
Actually, there IS a middle ground and the one I'm inclined to take. I found the presentation self-indulgently drawn out and this elevating of Homer Simpson's Cape Feare episode to the status of the other Homer's Odyssey a clever conceit but when it comes to buying into its loftier thematic aims, I see this Simsonesque emperor without any clothes.
That said, Washburn and the Civilians of which director Steve Cosson is founding director are a fine fit. The actors associated with this always interesting group are into the various stages of this Simpson-powered comedy given a pitch black edge courtesy of what Washburn calls "unfortunate facts." Neil Patel's scenic design, Emily Rebholz's costumes are imaginative, especially for the third act which is a musicalized all-Simpson show reenactment. Justin Townsend's lighting is terrifically evocative in the candle lit opening scene but also just right for each of the time and place settings that follow.
The first scene in the near future has seven people keeping their minds off the reality of the power grid crash that has pretty much destroyed their world by retelling bits and pieces of Simpson episodes seen in happier days. A stranger, at first greeted with pointed guns and a body search, tells of what he's encountered during his long trek through devastated towns and highways. Without internet, notebooks serve to keep lists of hopefully alive relatives and friends. The stranger who's about as much attuned to The Simpsons as I am, expands the tension releasing effect of our cultural memories with a song from Gilbert & Sullivan's The Mikado which as someone recalls, was also once performed by a famous Simpson character,Sideshow Bob. This scene would have been a lot better if all the Simpson and related references were kept to a few well chosen tidbits.
The seven years later second part which is the weakest of the three, sees these same people actually surviving in this dark and dismal post-electric world as a theater company reenacting —do I really have to tell you, what? I'll leave it to you to find out how their dramatic endeavor catapults them even further into the future (75 years to be exact) and a third act extravaganza of a whole Simpson episode transformed into a musical by Michael Friedman's okay but not especially outstanding songs.
To get back to my mixed response to this satirical conceit. As I logged onto You Tube to watch the Simpsons' Mormon episode before seeing the blockbuster musical The Book Of Mormon, I dutifully did my homework and checked out Cape Feare on You Tube before heading for Playwrights Horizon. While watching the Mormon episode wasn't needed to get right into the fun and spirit of The Book Of Mormon, my admitted fast-forward through Cape Feare did make the plethora of references and the actual final replay less puzzling. However, it didn't prevent me from wishing that I could have fast forwarded to the post intermission finale which is the most theatrically dynamic and in terms of set and costumes a visual triumph that may just offset having to sit still for Washburn's labyrinthine, reference overloaded script