Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Play: Meh

Mr. Burns, a Post-Electric Play By Anne Washburn, Score by Michael Friedman, Lyrics by Anne Washburn, Directed by John Langs. ACT,Through 15 November

I've wanted to see this one for some time. It was workshopped locally and I didn't get around to it, then it went to NY and did well and then came back here to the ACT (A Contemporary Theatre, located on the first floor of the convention center downtown), and I meant to get to it, but you know, I was busy shipping a game and all and finally got around to getting tickets for a not-sold-out show for the Saturday matinee on the final weekend. And I'm OK with that, since ultimately what I say here will not have a single effect on ticket sales.

Because I didn't really enjoy it. Eavesdropping on other conversations leaving the theater showed I was not alone. It is a more frustrating play than I would like to admit, though I'm not sure that that wasn't the entire point.

The hook is excellent - in a post- apocalyptic America where civilization has died with the electric grid and a truly dark age has descended on the land, a group of people are gathered around a campfire. And they tell stories. In this case, recreating Simpsons episodes, in particular Cape Feare, which was a take on the DeNiro Cape Fear with Sideshow Bob trying to kill Bart, and the family fleeing to create a new life on a houseboat. And the original show was overpacked with everything, including references to I Love Lucy, Gilbert & Sullivan, Reader's Digest, foreign revolutions, witness protection, hockey masks, and elephants celebrating Hannibal crossing the alps. Not all these pieces make it into the first retelling, and that's part of what's going on here - in a post-literate universe, all we have are memories, and those that survive do so for a reason.

So, Act One is a bunch of people around the campfire recreating a Simpson episode. We get bits and pieces about what happened in the world - keying in on where the nuke plants are/were, and how far away you have to be to be safe. And new practices have come into being - everyone has lists of people they are trying to find, written down in notebooks, all of them keeping the past alive. It all works, and it is keeping the darkness at bay.

Act Two is seven years later, where the characters from Act One have formed into a cohesive theatre troupe. They are producing the Cape Feare episode in a world that is struggling for survival. There are other troupes, and ownership of the lines and bits is hotly contested. In addition, they do "commercials", which are filled with references to the pleasures of the past. This is not about encouraging consumption but rather nostalgic reminders of the richness of past pleasures. The actors argue about artistic merit and wonder about whatever happened to the Diet Cokes in the world. And it is only seven years, and the same characters, so it works.

And then we jump 75 years and the wheels don't exactly come off, but it does wobble an awful lot. We don't get to see the people of this next generation world, but do get to see the artifact that they have created out of the bits of Simpsonia. Now the cast of Springfield tells the tale of the fall of civilization, and the Simpsons have escaped it on their houseboat. Sideshow Bob has been replaced with Mr. Burns in the plot and is now a devil-figure who mercilessly cuts through the family and truly torments Bart. The topical humor has been replaced with a dour moralism, and the stagecraft is more Shakespearean blood and guts in its entertainment.

AND, the third act is a musical, a weird blend of religious ceremony, kabuki, and Broadway musical (with all the tragedy that Broadway musicals seem to traffic in). But this creates an addition problem of following along the chorus. I've always had trouble following the words when everyone is singing - that's why they provide librettos. The result is an alien construct, to a great degree, and you are now looking at the pieces of the past poking through, melded with bits of Peter Pan and Huckleberry Finn. Those looking for the original have to realize that the changed world no longer supports the very suppositions that made the Simpsons relevant in the first place, and as such they are transformed.

The cast is great, and it wonderful seeing actors I have seen at the Rep show up here - Anne Allgood, Bhama Roget, and Robertson Witmer. Erik Gratton makes a great Homer, Adam Standley is a perfect Sideshow Bob, though his character in the play is more valuable for his memory. Claudine Mboligikpelani Nako shudders in the first act as a refugee, but blossoms in the second as the troupe's director, only to disappear (with the other characters we care about) in the final act.

And I think that's one of the problems with the play - we DO identify with the characters in the first two acts, and to see them gone in the third frustrates. We see shadows of them in the performance, bits and pieces of their contribution, but they are gone, along with our world. And that leads to a feeling of melancholy when it is all said and done.

I'm not sure if the play is a failure, though it doesn't send the customers out with a feeling of redemption. Not all plays should, but of course playing the Simpsons in this fashion disquiets and frustrates, which again, may just be the point.

In short, while history is written by the victors, art is created by the survivors.

More later,