Telling people that I was going to review the Wilbury Group’s production of Mr. Burns, I got a few variations on the same response: “Maybe I don’t know a lot about theater – the only Mr. Burns I know is the one on ‘The Simpsons!’” That is, in fact, the one. Anne Washburn’s play, subtitled a post-electric play, follows a group of survivors of a nuclear apocalypse whose favorite piece of pop culture is lost to them, and who try to hang onto it first through storytelling among themselves and later through performing for others.
Director Brien Lang creates a successful production partly by enthusiastically committing to what the weird, sprawling script requires. The first act is lit only by the light of a campfire and occasional flashlight (the first production I’ve seen that’s been willing to do that act mostly in the dark, making the worthwhile trade-off of full visibility for atmosphere). The audience, on Wilbury’s now-trademark moving platforms, is seated around the campfire listening, along with the other characters, to Matt (Diego Guevara) recap the plot of the “Cape Feare” episode. (It’s only the first of many elements that are set up in Acts I and II, before being brought back and transformed in Act III of this puzzle-box of a play. Before that act begins, the audience will also see the gesture of notebooks being held open and examined for the names of survivors, listen to a self-indulgent yet incredibly fun original medley of pop songs that shows off the diverse singing talents of the cast, hear about how long it takes irradiated areas to be safe for human life again, and more.) The cast delivers the dialogue naturally, rapid-fire with a lot of overlap, but they give clarity and weight to the moments that are important for the worldbuilding of the post-apocalyptic setting, or for the characters’ quiet will to survive. (When the survivors are discussing where they came from and how they got to their current location: “I live here. Or, I lived here. – No, I live here.”)
The first two acts in general are fairly plotless – more about developing the world and the ideas than about events happening – and the second act meanders more than the first, but the Wilbury Group makes it work because the characters care about each other and that makes us care about them, too. They could be doing anything to survive in the post-apocalypse and that likable ragtag-bunch-of-misfits element would still be there, but what they’ve chosen to do is perform “The Simpsons” episodes to the masses. Even their artistic disagreements (trying to provide meaning vs. providing pure entertainment because “we get meaning for free whether we like it or not”) are aimed at making things better for their whole group. The collaborative relationship of the ensemble – both Wilbury’s and the one portrayed in the play – is the heart of the show.
I won’t reveal too much about how Act III plays out; it’s a huge, weird stylistic departure from the previous two acts, with some shocking plot moments that I don’t want to spoil. A few hints: The audience is wheeled up to the foot of the proscenium stage, which is used for the first time in this act. It’s a musical, with the yellow-makeup’d actors playing as well as singing under the music direction of Dave Tessier, but in spite of the familiar subject matter, there’s a sense of artificiality and foreignness of style that could belong to a half-remembered “Simpsons” episode performed far in the future. Daraja Hinds is a wonderful Bart Simpson, capturing the character’s essential childishness, but tempering it with the maturity thrust onto the kid in this darker version of the world (and with a fantastic, strong voice). One speech is a mashup of Night of the Hunter and Peter Pan, and you will probably buy into it.
Lang explains that he took inspiration from the pageant of Book of Mormon performed annually in upstate New York, where hundreds of devout amateurs gather to re-enact the founding events of their faith. (Going back to what I said about what makes this production work – wholehearted commitment.) The actual tale of the apocalypse at the start of Act III of Mr. Burns gets a little lost, but another moment of shared memory (again, no spoilers) is very moving, and the final moments of the play bear out the goal of honoring the new civilization’s founding myth and making something “amazing” as a collective.
In a word … excellent.