Los Angeles Theater Review: MR. BURNS, A POST-ELECTRIC PLAY (Sacred Fools Theatre Company)

by Tony Frankel on November 10, 2017

in Theater-New York

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LET THERE BE DARK

A group of campers sits around the warm glow of campfire embers and tries to retell a favorite episode of The Simpsons. One man excitedly recalls and performs “Cape Feare” with entertaining accuracy. Others chime in with a few lines and impersonations, goading on his storytelling when he falters. No doubt some patrons watching Sacred Fools’ ridiculously imaginative production could contribute their own recollections of Sideshow Bob’s attempts to murder Bart in this iconic episode.

Yet something is wrong with this picture. Why are these campers so jittery? Why is one on guard duty? Why is a woman hunched to the side, hesitant to engage with the group? Bit by bit, the grim reality falls into place. Some kind of nuclear disaster is wiping out much of the United States’ population, and the few survivors have created tenuous alliances with one another for provisions and protection, comfort and companionship. Mr. Burns, A Post-Electric Play is a compelling exploration of storytelling as an essential mode of human survival.

For playwright Anne Washburn, pop culture is a lens through which we navigate our collective history. More to the point, pop culture is our history. Act I of Mr. Burns may begin with a seemingly sharp dividing line between fiction and reality—The Simpsons and nuclear catastrophe—but the stories become inextricably intertwined.

Act II takes place seven years after the disaster; the group of survivors has become a “professional” theater company that performs Simpsons episodes—adding made-up commercials—for nostalgic audiences. Culminating in a huge group dance performed to sitcom theme songs, the second act is the most successful of the night because the conflict between characters creates a satisfying dramatic arc. At one point things get much more interesting when a cast member argues for some meaning—more realism and sharper motivation—in their reenactment. But she’s quickly told to shut up (as Buckingham Palace said of the royal family, “You don’t shine daylight on magic”).

In Act III, seventy-five years later, “Cape Feare” has transmuted into an operatic myth of origins for the post-electric civilization. Nuclear power plant owner Mr. Burns has replaced Sideshow Bob as the archetypal villain—and Bart has become the triumphant hero; this disturbing and funny musical, a communal ritual of slaughter and renewal, is what morphed from the first act’s storytelling. Unfortunately, the score by the recently deceased Michael Friedman (Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson)—which cleverly intertwines tropes of operetta, musical theater, rap, and pop—goes on for far far too long, leaving us more enervated than exhilarated. And while the 9-member cast is perfect for the musical, the acting throughout the 160 minutes ranges from deliberate to exciting to organic to premeditated.

Surely, Washburn has created a smart structure which progresses from primitive campfire storytelling to rehearsal to staged performance, tracing a cultural myth across its stages of construction. Even smarter is director Jamie Robledo’s use of three theaters in Sacred Fools’ new home, the Broadwater theater complex in Hollywood. The first act has members of the in-the-round audience sitting in camp chairs under a forested canopy, putting us palpably front-and-center into a calamity that doesn’t seem so far-fetched given the natural and man-made disasters of the last year. We are then moved down a hallway—which is slathered in photos and letters of missing loved ones—into the first of two proscenium spaces (there is an intermission between Acts II and III). The final act takes place in the main space where we witness the musical played out on a dystopian, tribal houseboat. The entire production is a showcase for the technical team: Joel Daavid’s sets; Matthew Richter’s lights; Linda Muggeridge’s costumes and masks (with Aviva Pressman); Brandon Clark’s props; scenic artists Joyce Hutter and Paul Sheargold; and scenic painter Summer Reese.

Mr. Burns, A Post-Electric Play
Sacred Fools Theatre Company
The Broadwater
1076 Lillian Way in Hollywood
ends on November 18, 2017
EXTENDED to December 9, 2017
for tickets ($15), call 310.281.8337
or visit Sacred Fools

photos by Jessica Sherman Photography

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