There is really only one Mr. Burns, and it is not Robert Burns, the poet, George Burns, the comedian, or Ken Burns, the filmmaker. No, Mr. Burns is a cartoon character, the flint-hearted, miserly tycoon who runs a nuclear power plant in the generic American town of Springfield, home of a family known as the Simpsons. Mr. Burns, A Post Electric Play, written by Anne Washburn (score by Michael Friedman/lyrics by Anne Washburn), is a very dark comedy in three acts that takes place in a near-future, post-apocalyptic world. The downfall was caused by the collapse of nuclear power plants, which means deadly radiation, no electricity, with death and destruction on a monumental scale all across the country and maybe the world. The play is wildly complex, wonderfully imaginative as well as touching, unpredictable, very oddly reverential, and perhaps a touch irritating in a good way, the kind that challenges an audience.
In Act I, a quartet of survivors huddle around a campfire and try to reconstruct one of the most famous episodes of The Simpsons, the well-loved “Cape Feare.” That episode has Side Show Bob, newly released from jail, on a mission to kill Bart. It is a spoof of the 1991 thriller, Cape Fear, which starred Robert De Niro, which was a remake of the 1962 film that starred Robert Mitchum and Gregory Peck. The scene is rich comedy until the arrival of a stranger, who after some vetting, joins in the re-creation of “Cape Feare.” Of course, there are lapses in their recollection of the episode, which has repercussions down the road.
Act II takes place seven years later, and the same group of people is now an ad hoc theatre company that stages reconstructions of The Simpsons in competition with other companies doing the same thing. It calls to mind the cutthroat competition of Elizabethan theatre. There is a semblance of an uneasy normalcy in the scene, a palpable fragility that is well warranted.
Under the imaginative, skillful direction of Jaime Robledo, this Sacred Fools production of Mr. Burns is a semi-immersive experience for the audience. The Sacred Fools venue, now known as the Broadwater, is a complex of three stages—Black Box, Second Stage, and Main Stage—and Mr. Burns uses them all, with the audience being guided from one venue to next. The first scene is performed in the Black Box at a very close proximity to the audience, some of whom could reach out and touch the players. Some members of the audience sit in camp chairs just like the ones the actors use. In the Second Stage, the actors rehearse on a stage that resembles a studio space lit by a skylight. When the show moves to the Main Stage for the third act, the venue is formal with an act curtain and footlights that must be lit by hand.
The third act is frankly disturbing with broad comedy that is cruel and evokes audience laughter that carries guilt. The playwright sets the scene seventy-five years in the future. The source Simpsons episode, “Cape Feare,” is now couched in a semi-solemn ritual that features song and stylized movement. Taking a page from the Greeks, the actors perform masked, each mask representing a character from the world of the Simpsons. Ned Flanders is there, as well as Kent Brockman, Mrs. Krapabbel, Itchy and Scratchy, and more. In this evolved ritual, Side Show Bob is gone, and now Mr. Burns makes his appearance as a hideous, murderous villain. It is a breathtaking piece of theatre.
If ever there was an ensemble show, this is it. The cast plays the multiple roles with consummate skill, singing, dancing and acting with grand abandon and awesome dedication to the work. They are Scott Golden, Heather Roberts, Tracey A. Leigh, Joe Hernandez-Kolski, Tegan Ashton Cohan, Eric Curtis Johnson, Dagney Kerr, Emily Clark and Aaron Mendelson. This cast will not be forgotten come awards season.
Produced by Brian Wallis, Mr. Burns is handsomely mounted in all three theatres with scenic design by Joel Daavid and associate set designer DeAnne Millais, with lighting by Matthew Richter; costumes are by Linda Muggeridge, who also designed the masks along with Aviva Pressman; props are by Brandon Clark; Act II choreography is done by Lauren Van Kurin and Erin Parks; sound design and Act III choreography are by Jaime Robledo; and Edgar Landa choreographed the fights.
Mr. Burns, A Post Electric Play, a magnum opus for Sacred Fools Theater Company, has extended its run through December 9th at The Broadwater, 1078 Lillian Way (corner of Santa Monica Blvd.) in Hollywood.