THEATER REVIEW: ‘Mr. Burns’ takes audience thru post-electric world at Villanova Theatre

Mina Kawahara as Quincy/Bart. Artwork by Ann Marley.
Mina Kawahara as Quincy/Bart. Artwork by Ann Marley. Photo by Kimberly Reilly

IF YOU GO

“Mr. Burns,” runs at Villanova Theatre, Vasey Hall, Villanova University at 800 Lancaster Ave. through Feb.18. For tickets call 610-519-7474 or go to villanovatheatre.org. The box office is open Monday-Friday noon-5 p.m.

It’s nearly impossible to say anything new about “The Simpsons” after the quarter-century Matt Groening’s ubiquitous animated satire has resided at the heart of our popular culture.

This stops no one from trying, and this may be one moral of Anne Washburn’s “Mr. Burns,” a post-electric play, her ambitious and quirky dark comedy (with music) currently on stage at Villanova Theatre.

In 2008 Washburn was commissioned by the New York theatre group The Civilians to write a play that would demonstrate the potential mythic qualities of pop culture. Having lived in New York during the 9/11 attacks, she was inspired to write a post-apocalyptic tale of people much like ourselves trying to rebuild some sort of society after unspecified nuclear power plant accidents bring down the power grid (and civilization as we know it) for good.

If Washburn had been writing in the 1960’s she might have chosen Al Capp’s Lil’ Abner or Philadelphia’s own Walt Kelly and his comic Pogo to represent the pervasive nature of satire and the resilience of certain fictional personalities. Today, it’s the Simpsons and their adventures as they explore nearly every aspect of U.S. society which made them a logical choice for a play about the persistence and evolution of heroes and heroines through time.

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The playwright leaps forward to a near and then not-so-near future in order to reach a time when people once again must create stories by campfires and lamplight using only voice, movement, presence and the simplest of instruments. Each act of the play is summarized by a descriptor that sets the stage for the gradual rebirth as mythic characters of Homer, Marge, Bart, Lisa and Maggie as well as the sinister nuclear power plant owner J. Montgomery Burns.

Act I (Survival) finds a small trigger-happy band of survivors suffering from PTSD stuck in rural New Jersey, having fled the collapse of civilization after the power grid fails. Matt (Lee Stover) and Jenny (Tara Demmy) use their recollections of “The Simpsons” and the iconic, much-praised Cape Feare episode from the 5th season to help the other survivors Maria (Sisi Wright), Colleen (Shawneen Rowe) and the solid, unperturbable Sam (Brishen Miller) to occupy time and calm their fears. They are joined by Gibson (Leo Bond) who quickly adds his theatrical talents to the storytelling. The famous episode, in which Bart is pursued by the clown-gone-bad Sideshow Bob combines a parody of the film Cape Fear (specifically the 1991 remake with Robert DiNiro) with an extended Simpsons-style take on prison life, witness protection, TV cartoons, Gilbert & Sullivan and a children’s fear of the unknown.

In Act 2 (Creation, Commodity and Community) seven years have passed and the group has become a travelling theater troupe tracing the perilous back roads of the Midwest along with a temperamental young diva named Quincy (Mina Kawahara, who also plays a compelling Bart Simpson) performing the Cape Feare episode (including complete commercials for Diet Coke and other now-iconic products). Individual lines of dialogue and jokes are now commodities, cataloged and numbered for purchase and use.

In Act 3 (The New Parable) it’s 75 years after the end of the old world and the legacy of the now-dead Cape Feare travelling performers has been turned into a fantastic opera with a percussive orchestra using metal pipes, guitar, piano and elaborate costumes in which Bart, trapped on the family’s runaway houseboat faces not the evil clown Sideshow Bob but the ultimate evil — Mr. Burns himself.

It’s helpful but not necessary to have some knowledge of “The Simpsons” as well as modern apocalyptic fiction to enjoy the show. The patient reconstruction and eventual near-canonization of Cape Feare and its characters is reminiscent of other fictional totems created by survivors, including the Punch and Judy shows of Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker, the Catholic monks and their illuminated scrolls of technical blueprints and circuit boards that survive the nuclear holocaust in Walter M. Miller, Jr.’s A Canticle for Leibowitz and the Payday candy bars, souped-up cars and prophetic dreams in Steven King’s The Stand.

As Homer might say, the second act sometimes made my head hurt and there’s no real beer to drink (D’Oh!) but this animated (not cartoonish) energetic cast eventually comes together under Jill Harrison’s capable direction to give the story the vibrant and dramatic push it needs to send it into an unknown but still promising future (Woo Hoo!).

The late composer Michael Friedman’s score is a doom-laden but mesmerizing combination of pop songs from Britney Spears, Eminem and others set against a kabuki-like lattice of stylized sound.

Scenic Designer Colin McIlvaine has turned our modern trash into some treasures, creating (with the help of Villanova Dining Services) a backdrop made entirely of plastic bottles. Rising over a gritty and leaf-strewn rectangle that comprises the stage, it’s the sort of drop cloth you would grab for protection from Ragnarok.