Updated: Jun 20, 2020
The earth is barren, society has collapsed, and America as we know it has come to an end. Gathered around a fire in the woods, a group of dauntless survivors search for meaning in the face of their struggle and discover a shared love in retelling one of the great stories of their time: an episode of “The Simpsons.” In a darkly comedic mash-up of oral tradition and pop culture, Anne Washburn’s wildly inventive play asks us to consider life beyond smart phones, Wi-Fi, and social media. A rocking, rollicking musical mythology, “Mr. Burns: A Post-Electric Play,” recently submitted by Cal State Fullerton’s College of the Arts, will leave you dizzy with the scope and genius of its ideas.
This intoxicating and sobering vision of an American future, set during a day-after-tomorrow apocalypse, isn’t just some giddy head trip, either. It has depths of feelings to match its breadth of imagination. At the end of Director Kyle Cooper’s vertiginous production at CSUF’s Young Theatre, which incidentally has already closed, staged from November 9th through December 2nd, you feel both exhausted and exhilarated from all the layers of time and thought you’ve traveled through…and, on into the next day as well.
You may also feel a burning urge to tell somebody about what you’ve seen, even though you know you won’t get the details exactly right. Don’t worry, this is normal. It is truly hard to describe. But the vital instinct to pass on and share stories, inevitably reshaping them along the way, is what this show celebrates.
Aliens, zombies or even human warmongers laying siege to our fragile planet are a dime a dozen on cinematic screens and in TV series, providing unique occasions for extravagant, big explosions that light up the sky and conquer the world. But “Mr. Burns,” in distinct contrast, is a story that is rather quiet, exclusive to the high energy level of the actors. And since the world it portrays has been robbed of electricity, much of it takes place amid shadows or in candlelight (flashlights are prized possessions) with people grappling to forget how scared they are. We hear the anxiety in the silence that surrounds these survivors, and the bereftness in their ways of finding order in their loss.
The characters we meet in “Mr. Burns” are clearly on the run from a plague of sorts related to radioactivity after the mass failure of nuclear power plants across the country. Huddled together in the woods, these random survivors, like the rag-tag group seen in “The Walking Dead,” or the sequestered Florentines of "The Decameron," are waiting out a nuclear winter by reimagining that classic animated tale of their time. That would be none other than a particular remixed episode of “The Simpsons,” — the "Cape Feare" episode, to be exact, in which young Bart, Homer and Marge is stalked by the murderous Sideshow Bob.
Let’s pause for a second and note that it might be helpful if you have a passing knowledge of “The Simpsons,” Matt Groening’s long-lived animated series, that finds gloriously fertile form in this beloved, dysfunctional all-American family. That “Cape Feare” segment that’s being reconstructed from memory at the beginning of “Mr. Burns” is partly a riff on the 1991 Martin Scorsese movie,“Cape Fear,” which also is a remake of the 1962 film that starred Robert Mitchum, whose earlier role in “The Night of the Hunter” is also cited in this same “Simpsons” episode (along with some Gilbert & Sullivan operettas).
So, what the characters in “Mr. Burns” are trying to recollect in the play’s first act is itself a recollection of many stories, variously told, that came before. And during the 80-some years covered in the tale, mixed with other tales as well, will evolve into other shapes until, at the end, we have come full circle. But what we’re returning to is something far more primal. In the astonishing final sequence, Obie award-winning Michael Friedman has devised a fabulous score that turns Britney Spears and Eminem hits into subterranean chorales of the underworld. Ultimately, that single “Simpsons” episode becomes a treasure-laden bridge, both to the past and into the future, and we are reminded of how ordinary life can seem in moments of extraordinary crisis, and of how horror creates its own diurnal routine.
You should also know that the second act, set seven years after the first, manages to provide an instant lesson in the processes of capitalism. And that it asks us implicitly to rethink the nature and value of art, which in this case includes television commercials and Top 40 singles.
Ms. Washburn’s blasted America, which is made to feel as imminent as next week, has been rendered without appearing disingenuous. As designed by Todd Faux (Sets), Kaylynn Sutton (Costumes), Edgar Antonio Alamo (Lighting) and Roberto Hernandez (Sound), the play’s look is that of our own present, just slightly tweaked by catastrophe. Bravo, too, to Nicolette Woodard’s Makeup and Hair, and the entire Student Production Staff along with a multitude of faculty mentors. The Musical Director is Craig Shields, Choreographer is Angeline Mirenda, and the Fight Choreography was coordinated by Michael Polak.
It’s easy to forget how good the acting is here because it doesn’t feel like acting (it’s that real), except when the characters are putting on a show, and then we’re always aware of the real people beneath the disguises. The seventeen-member cast (some with dual roles), all adept with portraying the crystalized core of human emotions, emerges without a real star in the show. This is truly an ensemble group, voice-coached by Evelyn Carol Case, and Director Cooper should be proud of this recent entry for their 2018-19 season.
The cast includes Leo Torrez as Matt/Willy, Rey Pulice as Sam/Scratchy, Mykah Atkins as Jenny/Apu, Darby Sorich playing Maria/Quimby. Rachel Fosnaugh portrays Colleen/Piggum, Evan Borgoa is Gibson/Burns, Isobel Beaman plays Quincy/Edna, and Genevieve Kauper plays Bart. Corinn Szostkiewicz is Lisa, Charles Garcia is Homer, Olivia Kridle is Marge and Aryana Hamzehloo plays Itchy. Peri Kolodziej is Nelson, Spencer Cassling is Flanders, Brianna Marquez is Moe, Dawson Power is Thelma, and Seth Weaver is Troy.
No one knows how art will finally be remembered if this scenario becomes a reality, or if the Simpsons will ever join the pantheon of those mainstream entertainers of another age, Homer and Shakespeare. I suppose anything is possible. Yet with grand assurance and artistry, Ms. Washburn makes us appreciate anew the profound value of storytelling in and of itself.
Not incidentally, “Mr. Burns” also makes a case for theatre as the most glorious and durable storyteller of all. I look forward to remembering it for a long, long time. Congratulations to the cast and crew of Cal State Fullerton’s drama department for an exceptional production!
National Youth Arts