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"Mr. Burns; a Post Electric Play," February 17-25, USC Longstreet Theatre.
"'Broadway, Past... Present... Forever!" February 17-26, On Stage Productions, 351-6751.
"Outlaw Song," February 23-26, USC Lab Theatre
"Miss Nelson is Missing," February 25 - March 5, Columbia Children's Theatre, 691-4548.
"Million Dollar Quartet," March 3-19, Town Theatre, 799-2510.
"Grey Gardens," March 10 - April 1, Trustus Theatre, 254-9732.
"Guys and Dolls," March 17 - April 2, Village Square Theatre, 359-1436.
"Cyrano," March 23 - April 2, Sumter Little Theatre, 775-2150.
"Barefoot In the Park," March 24 - April 2, Workshop Theatre, 799-6551.
"Legally Blonde Jr., The Musical," March 24-26, Columbia Children's Theatre Youth, 691-4548.
"James and the Giant Peach," April 5-23, Columbia Children's Theatre, 691-4548.
"American Legends," April 7-9, Ritz Theatre of Newberry, 276-6264.
"Animal Farm," April 14-22, USC Drayton Hall.
"The Bald Soprano," April 20-23, USC Lab Theatre.
"Improv Show #2," Ritz Theatre of Newberry, 276-6264.
"Hand to God," April 21 - May 8, Trustus Theatre, 254-9732.
"Beverly Hillbillies," April 28 - May 7, On Stage Productions, 351-6751.
"Midlife! The Crisis Musical," April 28 - May 7, Chapin Theatre Company, 240-8544.
Press Releases for Current Shows
Camden Community Theatre
Chapin Theatre Company
Columbia Children's Theatre
On Stage Productions
Ritz Theatre of Newberry
SC Shakespeare Company
Sumter Little Theatre
Village Square Theatre
|Post-Apocalyptic Story-Telling Turns The Simpsons Into Mythic Icons in “Mr Burns, a Post-Electric Play” at USC's Longstreet Theatre
Review by August Krickel
Post-apocalyptic tales are all the rage these days. Perhaps we're fed up with the world as we know it, and just want to burn the mother down, then start afresh. But what then?
Will humankind rule the planet, or give way to a reign of zombies, or mutants, or apes? (Or Keith Richards?) Science fiction abounds with potential causes, from meteor strikes to alien invasions, but rarely do we chronicle the manner in which humanity might begin to reinvent itself. Playwright Anne Washburn posits that Bart Simpson will be the key. Part social satire, part speculative fiction, part homage to late 20th/early 21st century pop culture, and part allegory on the way we develop art, myth and culture via storytelling, Washburn's Mr. Burns, a Post-Electric Play will have you wondering if your beverage has been laced with some hallucinogen before it's over, but what a fascinating journey it will have been. And it the premise sounds awfully esoteric or too academically highbrow for a mainstream audience, don't have a cow, man - Theatre South Carolina's production is also a delightfully silly romp through the collected wit, wisdom and lore of The Simpsons - particularly one episode which parodied the Martin Scorsese remake of the film Cape Fear - culminating in Bart's apotheosis as savior of mankind.
Beginning quite realistically after failure of the nation's (world's?) power grid and accompanying meltdowns at nuclear plants, we're introduced to five survivors, huddled around a campfire in the woods, telling stories to keep their spirits up as people have done for countless eons. Being Millennials, the long-running cartoon series The Simpsons is a common interest for most, and one, played by John Romanski, uses his keen memory to recreate favorite moments. Soon all have joined in, even a newcomer (Darrell Johnston) who helps recall a key punchline; he admits to never having watched the show, but his girlfriend quoted it all the time. While amusing, this first scene is more significant than one might think, as we see the early formation of traditions, as survivors all carry notebooks with names of living people they have encountered. Everyone is allowed names of ten loved ones to ask about, although Johnston notes he's heard of some groups reducing it to eight. We also see the earliest development of an oral history that speculates on the origins of the now-pervasive radioactivity.
Without giving away too much of the plot, I'll just say that the second act/scene takes place a few years into the future, when there is a vague semblance of order, although still electricity-free. America is down to a population of a million; while there seem to be some laws and agreed-upon customs, anything committed to pen and paper is considered worthless, with accurate memories of what went before considered a valuable commodity. The protagonists have expanded, now surviving by entertaining other groups with vaudeville-style shows that recreate The Simpsons as well as commercials and medleys of Top 40 hits from that era. It's a simultaneously admirable and pathetic attempt to replicate fragments of what has been lost from their cultural heritage.
The third scene transpires 75 years beyond
that. With torch/candlelight still
the only means of illumination, and the Longstreet Theatre stage's
hydraulic lift seemingly powered by a hapless stagehand peddling away on
a bicycle, the illusion of a circus-like big top is created. The
Simpsons have now become both symbols of the nation's
last post-nuclear, nuclear family, longing for the halcyon life they
enjoyed in pre-meltdown Springfield, and epic heroes of a stylized,
ritualistic opera, with Greek tragedy-style masks depicting everyone
from Marge to Apu. Random references from the first
two scenes are now integral plot elements, and Mr. Burns (Homer's boss
who operates a nuclear plant in the cartoon series) has not only
replaced Sideshow Bob as the principal antagonist, but has become the
very embodiment of the threat of radiation.
The cast is a true ensemble, with little opportunity to create complex characters, especially since for at least half the time they are quoting or playing characters from The Simpsons or elsewhere. Romanski is just as exuberant and verbose as he was as Bottom in A Midsummer Night's Dream, while Brooke Smith is just as officious and controlling she was in Cosi, both from last fall. From the new crop of MFA students, Kimberly Braun shows off some impressive vocal skills in a cast of excellent singers. But the stars of this show are the production team. Guest Director Jeremy Skidmore has made some risky choices, staging the production in the round, and allowing the surroundings to be dark when they're supposed to be. The resulting visual effect, accomplished by lighting designer Marc Hurst, is extreme verisimilitude for what is billed as a post-electric world. Thus the entire first scene plays out in shadows and darkness, with the only lighting coming from a single fire. Similarly, the spectacle of the finale appears to happen on a stage where a row of candles placed in footlights provide a low golden glow. I enjoyed the imagery immensely, but found myself wishing I could see more of the actors' faces. This was a particular issue in the final musical extravaganza, which is sung-though, with no spoken dialogue. Done in the round, this means at least some of the singers will always have their backs to part of the audience, and with most of their faces hidden by masks, specific lines sung by specific characters were sometimes hard to follow. And since the plotline of this culminating mythic revamp has significantly grown and mutated into something new, being able to pick up more easily on clues from performers' body language and facial expressions would have been nice. Yet that said, I'm not sure how closely the playwright intends for the audience to follow the nuances of the libretto, since the bigger point is the irony of The Simpsons achieving iconic status. Tony Cisek's set design - in particular the baroque performance space for the third scene - is clever, and appropriate for the low-tech surroundings of the future. Choreographer joHanna Pastorkovich and musical director/pianist Matthew Dean Marsh have created some appealing, if surreal, production numbers, and the masks, presumably designed by costumer April Traquina, are rendered in intricate detail.
Cultural anthropologists, sci-fi buffs, and aficionados of storytelling and stagecraft will likely all geek out over this production for different reasons, none of which require any knowledge of The Simpsons; rather they will appreciate the audacity of the play's premise, and how expertly Skidmore and his team have brought it to life. Patrons more accustomed to Shakespeare or Brecht may wonder into what acid trip they have stumbled, but many of Theatre South Carolina's recent productions have featured non-traditional or experimental story-telling techniques (e.g. Hamlet set in a Victorian asylum, The Tempest unfolding within Prospero's tormented mind, and A Midsummer Night's Dream set in a forest of luminous umbrellas and steampunk ravers.) Devoted fans of The Simpsons, however, are likely to find countless Easter eggs within the script's mashup of countless jokes, themes, and tropes from the cartoon's run of 28 seasons (and counting.) And if you think about it, a play that imagines a post-apocalyptic world in which the Simpsons become venerated cultural/mythological legends is just about the best idea for an actual episode of The Simpsons ever.
Mr. Burns, a Post-Electric Play runs at USC’s Longstreet theatre tonight through Saturday evening, Feb. 25, with an additional Saturday matinee at 3 PM. For ticket information call 777-2551 or visit http://artsandsciences.sc.edu/thea/mr-burns-post-electric-play-longstreet-theatre .
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