Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Post-apocalypticly, the only theater that "matters" is The Simpsons?

The cast of Mr. Burns, a post-electric play (Chris Bennion)
Mr. Burns, a post-electric play
ACT Theatre
Through November 15, 2015

Random audience member quote: "This is either genius or a complete mess, I can’t decide." That’s an intermission utterance overheard at ACT Theatre’s performance of Mr. Burns, a post-electric play (by Anne Washburn). By the end of the evening, that same audience member decided. It was a mess.

I don’t disagree with him. I don’t know what the play looks like on paper, and maybe there is some clarity that arises from the words laid out neatly on the page. What the experience is is not clear, and not even coherent within the world it creates. Playwrights often create worlds that don’t exist in reality, and when they do so, that world must cohere inside itself, at minimum. This one doesn’t feel coherent, in that way.

It feels more like an idea for a 10-minute play that got out of hand. The “idea” is that there has been an apocalypse, all electricity is gone, and what is left is storytelling. That’s not a bad start, and it’s not even a bad start to use The Simpsons as a story. Sitting around telling stories is a great use of diversion from a scary present and a unifying human act. What stops the idea is that it is only the Simpsons story being told, and only the one episode (Cape Feare) where Bart’s life is in danger, and includes nuclear meltdown in the plot.

In a world where people are desperate to entertain themselves in an old-fashioned way, wouldn’t they try to tell as many stories as they can remember? Why stop at one episode of one tv show? The fixation does not carry the evening.

John Langs’ direction seems fine, from a visual, moving-people-around-stage point of view, and in an if-someone-has-to-direct-this-its-fine opinion. The cast is full of talent (Anne Allgood, Christine Marie Brown, Andrew Lee Creech, Erik Gratton, Claudine Mgobligikpelani Nako, Bhama Roget, Adam Standley, Robertson Witmer) and it turns into a musical (!?) and all of them can sing well (Witmer plays the music). Choreography by Crystal Dawn Munkers is also fine, and sometimes amusing, and in the third act – entirely a ritualized retelling of the Simpson’s episode as a human survival story – nicely inclusive of some tribal elements.

The first of three segments is immediately after an apparent country-wide, potentially world-wide event that includes nuclear meltdowns. Those who are left are banding together in small groups, carrying weapons to defend themselves against the rest of the world, and already building rituals for meeting other people (the not-dangerous ones) and comparing lists of friends and loved ones to see if there is any news of them.

No one appears to have anything to “do” besides listen to stories. They recreate, frame by frame, the episode of the Simpsons, as best they can recall or prompt each other for.

The second segment is seven years later. Now, this band of survivors has turned into a performing troupe. Nako, who in the first segment was mute, suddenly is so empowered that she functions as the troupe director, barking orders and managing rehearsal. There is no backstory as to how she gets “better.” I wish there were. In this world, even commercials, recreated from memory, are an important part of the performance! A very funny musical mash-up ends this segment.

The third segment is 75 years later. By this point, the Cape Feare story has become a ritualized, religion-like musical allegory for continuing to move forward despite travails and evil. Here, Nako and Creech become Itchy and Scratchy (a cartoon mouse and cat on The Simpsons), because they apparently cannot be considered to portray one of the Family Simpson.

Whether it was realized at the time of casting/directing or not, this ends up looking racist as hell, folks.  Perhaps the original consideration was to diversify the cast, but the end result, including the specific costuming for them in this segment goes down a road I cannot imagine they meant. Apparently, even 75 years into a post-apocalyptic future, we still have racism?

Speaking of costumes, and set, those are two of the best aspects of the production (by Deb Trout and Matthew Smucker, respectively), with the exception of the above-mentioned costume choices. The swift change into and out of Simpson iconography-costumes works brilliantly.

One worry, listening to Bhama Roget mimic sounding like Bart Simpson, is that she may well hurt her voice if she’s not very careful during the run. In the last segment, she has to almost-sing, loudly and almost badly, for a full half hour. Bhama, please be careful.

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