The question at the center of Anne Washburn’s provocative play “Mr. Burns, a Post-Electric Play,” is what do we carry with us when the world as we know it comes to an apocalyptic end? That’s not just a traumatizing thought for those who outlasted historical horrors such as the Middle Passage and the Holocaust. It animates the minds of those who have survived contemporary barbarity in the name of religion or other beliefs.
For the heat-packing denizens of “Mr. Burns,” who still have their lives even as a nuclear holocaust has left America a depopulated wasteland, the answer is simple. These frightened survivors, gathered as they are around a campfire, fall back on pop culture — the kind that is supposed to be disposable.
Matt (Nick Gabriel), Jenny (Anna Ishida), Maria (Kelsey Venter), Sam (Ryan Williams French), Colleen (Charity Jones), Gibson (Jim Lichtscheidl), Quincy (Tracey A. Leigh) and Edna (Andrea Wollenberg) only relax as they begin to reconstruct their lives around remembrances of an episode of “The Simpsons” in Washburn’s “post-electric” play, which opened Saturday at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis.
They tell the story of a “Simpsons” send-up of two versions of the film “Cape Fear.” In other words, this Washburn play, delivered in three acts that span eight decades, is about an animated parody of two films, and how the story morphs and changes with each telling, according to the needs of its tellers and audience. (There also is a critique of ravenous capitalism, which consumes art.)
“Mr. Burns” premiered at Washington, D.C.’s Woolly Mammoth Theatre in 2012. That scrappy production, mounted by Steve Cosson under the aegis of the Civilians, was an edge-of-your-seat experience. Its enveloping staging in a relatively intimate playhouse made the dystopia palpable, especially for the unsettling elements of the production that originate from the audience.
Washburn’s play offers a dizzying vortex of ideas, some of which get lost or dissipated in the McGuire proscenium stage, which is a bit big and a bit too antiseptic for a post-apocalypse milieu. (It doesn’t help that the men are all clean-shaven, as if they’ll soon be going to the office.)
I understand director Mark Rucker’s impulse for this staging, done in conjunction with San Francisco’s American Conservatory Theater, where it played earlier this year. He wants to make everything in this convoluted story clear to audiences. That means “Mr. Burns” feels slow in places, especially in the first act. It also means that the biggest takeaway from Washburn’s play is its paean to the power of storytelling, which evolved around a campfire, moved into a theater and now has its apotheosis in the musical form (her argument in three acts).
While Rucker’s production, designed by Ralph Funicello, could be wilder and woollier, it is still worth seeing. There are bits of gorgeous humor in it, including a piece where Lichtscheidl does lines from Gilbert & Sullivan.
The show taps the zeitgeist at a moment rife with doomsday preppers and wild-eyed survivalists but does not go for any of the big fireworks. Instead, it looks into our hearts and asks, earnestly, what are you carrying in there?