By Ellen Wilson Dilks
For the third production in their 2017—18 season, Villanova Theatre is presenting Mr. Burns, a post-electric play by Anne Washburn, with music by Michael Friedman and lyrics by Washburn. Running at the University’s Vasey Hall stage now through February 18th, the production is directed by Jill Harrison.
Upon entering the theatre space, one is greeted by Colin McIlvaine’s eye-catching and intriguing set: a stage with a low boardwalk around three sides, which encompasses an area that looks like an odd campsite. There is trash and leaves on the dirt, a couple of small skids piled up as seating, a chaise longue and an armchair. In the midst of all of this is a toilet that serves as their firepit. Across the back of the space is a curtain that when lit a certain way looks like a thick forest of birch trees. It morphs into different effects as the lighting changes. Upon inspecting this ramshackled site, it becomes apparent that things in America have fallen apart.
The setting for Mr. Burns, a post-electric play is somewhere in New Jersey in 2011 (for the first scene—scene two of Act I is 7 years later) A group of 20-somethings are gathered; to pass the time they are trying to remember the dialogue of the “Cape Feare” episode of The Simpsons. We learn they have survived a series of nuclear power plant disasters around the country and their mutual love of the iconic animated series is their way of coping with their new reality. Suddenly a stranger appears—and suddenly this gang that has been immersed in talking about The Simpsons has guns at the ready. It is jarring to see. After their initial panic, they invite the stranger to join their group and compare lists of who they have met as they’ve moved around scavenging to see if friends and family survived. In the second scene, the ragtag group has become a traveling acting troupe presenting episodes of the Simpsons live around the country. We are viewing their final rehearsal of the “Cape Feare” story before their latest gig.
Act II is 70 years into the future, and we are seeing a very surreal performance of the infamous episode. It is in this act that Friedman’s music is heard. Almost entirely sung, it is a bizarre, mythological presentation of a cartoon that has become the solace of a nation lost.
Harrison’s cast of MFA grad students and undergrads are a gifted group, and seem to have a passion for the story. They present a great demonstration of ensemble work at its best. They are (in order of appearance) Lee Stover, Tara Demmy, Sisi Wright, Brishen Miller, Shawneen Rowe, Leo Bond, Mina Kawahara and Tina Lynch. The Act II “Greek chorus” supporting the presentation of “Cape Feare”consists of Kara Krichman, Mary Lyon and Mark Wheeler.
As always at Nova, the technical work on Mr. Burns, … is solid, providing a wonderful playing space for the actors to explore this apocalyptic world. McIlvaine’s aforementioned set is intriguingly lit by Jerrold R. Forsyth, who always provides insightful designs. John Stovicek has created a lovely soundscape, even designing some instruments for use in the production. A costume plot that runs the gamut from mundane to insane is the fine work of Laila Swanson, while Alisa Kleckner has created the fanciful masks for Act II. Sharri Jerue has provided the ensemble with a bunch of whimsical props in addition to the everyday items needed, and strong dance and fight choreography is the work of Samantha Reading.
Mr. Burns, a post-electric play was commissioned by The Civilians, a New York-based theatre company, in 2008. The directive they gave playwright Anne Washburn was to answer the questions “What pop culture stories of this era would survive in a post-apocalyptic society, and how would these stories survive?” Gathering a few of the company members, she recorded their response to the improv prompt to choose an episode of The Simpsons and retell it as best they could remember—including dialogue. The resulting play initially premiered at Woolly Mammoth in DC in 2012, transferring to NYC’s Playwrights Horizon in 2013. Washburn feels her work isn’t so much about the endurance of The Simpsons cartoon as it is the perseverance of humankind when faced with great adversity. I have to be honest and say I’m not sure I totally got the point, but I do feel that humor is key to handling life’s challenges. On this, I agree with Washburn: in the wake of great sorrows, we don’t turn to Shakespeare or Dickens, we seek comedies.
And Mr. Burns, a post-electric play has a lot of humor. There is also great pathos and compassion as this group initially tries to discover who and what has survived the tragedy. Harrison and company have created believable, fully-realized characters. When you go: Remaining performances are on February 13th through the 17th at 8pm and on the 18th at 2pm. Villanova is located at 800 Lancaster Avenue, at the intersection with Ithan Avenue. To get to Vasey Hall, take that first entrance on Ithan. For information and to make reservations, visit www.villanovatheatre.org or call the Box Office at 610-519-7474