Theater Wit's 'Mr. Burns, a post-electric play' celebrates art's enduring power
"Mr. Burns, a post electric play" -- ★ ★ ★ ½
There's no shortage of provocative ideas in "Mr. Burns, a post-electric play," Anne Washburn's dark dramedy about our shared stories, their meaning and how they evolve over time.
Inspired by TV's "The Simpsons," Washburn's 2012 play-with-music (the score is courtesy of Michael Friedman) examines the unceasing impulse to create, the drive we have to connect through shared narratives, the evolution of theater and the communal nature essential to its survival. For the record, passing knowledge of the long-running sitcom helps, but don't let unfamiliarity deter you from seeing this show -- now in an open-ended run at Theater Wit.
Smart and funny, with references ranging from Kanye West and Katy Perry to Robert DeNiro and Robert Mitchum, "Mr. Burns" embraces with equal vigor high art and pop culture as it blurs the line between the two.
If any ensemble can navigate the play's dualities it's Theater Wit, whose 2015 Chicago-area premiere ranks among its most acclaimed productions.
It opens in near darkness with survivors of a recent global nuclear catastrophe -- which has presumably killed millions and plunged the planet into darkness -- huddled around a fire. They're struggling to recall the "Cape Feare" episode from "The Simpsons" -- a parody of the 1962 film "Cape Fear" and 1991's remake -- in which Sideshow Bob seeks revenge on Bart who helped send the clown to prison.
In a post-apocalyptic world, "The Simpsons" reigns supreme.
One senses the survivors retell the episodes not only to entertain themselves, but to forestall the fear that accompanies the end of the world as we know it. Their dread is palpable, and we observe it in their expressions partly obscured by the long shadows cast by Heather Gilbert's lighting.
Unable to recall details and the episode's plotline, a survivor exclaims "this is torture." He's not just talking about an animated sitcom. In the age of a global pandemic, civil unrest and political upheaval, survival itself is torture. Recounting human experiences and crafting those narratives into art can be torture, too.
This is especially apparent during the first act through tension masterfully conveyed by artistic director Jeremy Wechsler and his cast: Daniel Desmarais, Eileen Doan, Andrew Jessop, Tina Muñoz Pandya, Leslie Ann Sheppard, Ana Silva, Will Wilhelm and Jonah D. Winston.
"I think I can handle anything if I know what it is," a character says. "I just can't manage the dread."
That observation, which Washburn penned a decade ago, is especially unsettling today.
Act II unfolds seven years later. The ragtag survivors have become professional troubadours who perform "Simpsons" episodes, which they enhance with commercials and medleys comprised of half-remembered pop tunes and verse snippets.
Competition and commerce have come into play as the troupe battles other ensembles for the rights to "Simpsons" dialogue. With personal survival (somewhat) assured, issues on art-making arise. The group debates dialogue and staging, how to best engage audiences and the extent to which the work provides meaning.
Set 75 years after the second act, Act III reflects the evolution of "The Simpsons" project, which has transformed from the simple recounting of a sitcom episode to a full-blown, near operatic production whose narrative has become more grandiose than its origin tale -- a testament to art's evolution.
While the third act is the most visually arresting -- Joe Schermoly's sets and the costumes by Mara Blumenfeld and Mieka Van Der Ploeg are absolutely inspired for the designers' incorporation of found objects -- it's also the least satisfying. I found the creative process that unfolds in Acts I and II more intriguing than the finished "Simpsons" show that comprises Act III. Still, it's a titillating, impressively performed conclusion to the play. That's especially true of Sheppard's Bart Simpson, who is defiant yet vulnerable in his confrontation with Andrew Jessop's villainous titular character.
While there's much to ponder about "Mr. Burns," the play confirms that art shifts and evolves, but it endures. Of that you can be certain.
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Location: Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont Ave., Chicago, (773) 975-8150 or theaterwit.org
Showtimes: 7 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday; 2:30 p.m. Sunday, open run
Running time: Two hours, 45 minutes, including two intermissions
Parking: On the street, valet available
Rating: For teens and older
COVID-19 precautions: Patrons must show proof they are fully vaccinated and a photo ID. All patrons must wear masks except when eating or drinking.