Mr. Burns, A Post Electric Play: Homage to Storytelling

I took a History of Photography class in college where my professor would often carry on conversations with Baudelaire in class.  He's dead by the way.  But she and Bau would chat--or so it seemed (I only heard her side of things).  Peppered into her lectures were mentions of Madame Blavatsky and her ape.  What any of this had to do with the history of photography...well I can't really say but she made it all make sense in her own wacky way.  It was a batshit crazy class and I loved every minute of it.

One of the things that has always stayed with me from that class was my professor's thesis on why photography took off when it did and the cultural need photography served.  Discussing Baron Haussmann's efforts to tear down Parisian neighborhoods and build a new city by structured plan, she raised the issue of nostalgia.  Generations of Parisians had never seen their personal environment change.  Suddenly, Haussmann was changing the entire look of the city, neighborhoods were destroyed, and people suddenly felt this loss of something they would never see again.  Her claim was that photography became more popular and prevalent as a way to "preserve" the memories of the city and its citizens. Suddenly it had a purpose that people came to understand. 

Nostalgia Board at Woolly Mammoth
As I was watching Anne Washburn's new play (a work commissioned by The Civilians and directed by Steven Cosson), I thought about how we as a society have that compulsion or need to preserve memories.  Maybe it comes as a reaction to tectonic shifts that are out of our control, but it seems like it is human nature to hold onto what has passed (I still hold it against a certain person that she killed my hamster in 7th grade--grudges and nostalgia go hand in hand right?).

This play takes a penetrating look at themes of nostalgia, memory, preservation, and loss.

Mr. Burns, A Post-Electric Play undertakes to show how after a major trauma a group of people are propelled into becoming documentarians of their past through live theater (reflecting aspects of The Civilians' own mandate to create works using journalism and art).  Rather than creating new works these survivors are re-creating their memories of entertainment from their lives "before." 

Broken into three Acts, the work begins immediately following a disaster (which involved nuclear power plants and a plume).  Intentionally vague, the details of the disaster are too hard for these few survivors to talk about.  As these strangers sit around a campfire, they try to comfort or distract each other by trying to remember the episode Cape Feare of The Simpsons.  Leading the storytelling is Matt (Steve Rosen), with Jenny (Kimberly Gilbert) and Maria (Jenna Sokolowski) chiming in.  They are obsessing over lines they cannot recall and plot twists that confound them.*  Suddenly, a new stranger comes out of the woods, Gibson (Chris Genebach).  After he is searched for weapons, they begin a ritual.  Each takes out a notebook and they each get to ask the whereabouts, if known, of ten people they care about.  Each person maintains a list of people they've been told survived.  A new stranger means access to a new book of information and maybe he will know something of their loved ones.  In a world with no electrical power (the power plant meltdown had to do with the power grids failing), these notebooks are their best effort to spread information which they have gathered (On my way to the theater I noticed the "Missing Soldier's Office" which was just around the corner.  Seems like there is a historical precedent for this kind of effort and it was a lovely parallel to that piece of local history.)  The notebook ritual was a beautiful symbol of how we make order in disorder.  We civilize ourselves even when it seems civilization has been lost. 

Act Two takes place 7 years after the scene in the woods.  The strangers from the campsite have somehow stayed together become a roving band of theatrical players strutting and fretting their Simpsons-based half-hours upon the stage.  Their "dramatic" repertoire is performing live episodes of the Simpsons with their own live commercials in between (a hilarious off-stage bath scene with steam and everything was a nice touch).  Their efforts to recreate these episodes are strongly based in being authentic to the original. 

Act Three takes place 75 years in the future and the "preserved" work of the Simpsons episodes has disappeared into a musical theater pastiche loosely connected to the original Cape Fear or Simpson's Cape Feare.  The entertainment needs have changed 75 years later and the work has lost its "authenticity" but serves now as an allegorical history play with musical references pulled from various aspects of past pop culture. Heavy on dramatic masks, footlights, and Brechtian detachment, it feels like an entirely different universe 75 years into the future.**

Much like the recent Title and Deed, Mr. Burns spends time focused on how we steady ourselves when we are adrift in the world--and in particular how our stories feed us.  What was impressive to me was that Washburn, Cosson and the talented performers found a way to make pastiche mean something.  Our culture recycles itself a lot (and the remake cycle does seem to be getting shorter).  Call it homage, satire, parody or stealing, some artists are better at it than others.  But what's happening here is that Mr. Burns takes the familiar and reuses it because these characters need it: reconstruction as healing.  Stitching together pieces of our potentially lost culture are what keep these people going. It's that usage that makes this a truly exciting and unique work.  The pastiche is not just for comic juxtaposition.  And don't get me wrong, for a play about the Apocalypse it is full of bright and funny moments.  The pleasure of the characters remembering bits of the Simpsons makes for scenes of pure joy for the characters and the audience.  And the excitement and seriousness the traveling theatre troupe has for it's mission is wonderful to behold.  It's not a bunch of kids putting on a show for fun.  It's a noble and reverential activity that they are engaging in to rebuild their world.

There are of course darker themes at work (which I love).  The corruption and tensions underlying Act Two show the fissures in civilization and how we can forget our humanity.   I found the exploration of how we cope in the aftermath of tragedy and how people react differently to be similar in spirit to the work done in Decade.

You know I think Steve Rosen is a very talented comedic performer and I'm continuing to make good on my "see everything he does" pledge.***  Here, he's a great Simpsons mimic nailing the voices to several characters.  But he's also got the dramatic chops to handle his character's darker moments.  His frenetic energy in telling the Simpsons episode scene by scene is masking a deeper pain.  Chris Genebach and James Sugg also offer very convincing portrayals of Simpsons characters which they turn on quite suddenly and effectively.  The play does not give a lot of background to each of the characters but all the actors gave their characters color and shading.  Kimberly Gilbert was a stand-out to me in both Acts One and Two. The ensemble handled the shifts from straight play, to play with music, to musical theater adeptly. 

The gap in time between Act Two and Act Three was (intentionally) jarring. The characters who I had actually invested in in Acts One and Two were gone in Act Three--I felt a loss as time moved on.  But that seemed to be keeping with the theme of loss and mirroring the characters own experiences.  But as academically profound as that was the emotional resonance was lost in the process.  Again, it seemed to be an intentional choice and it's a brave choice to end with a potentially alienating finale where emotion takes a back seat.  The entertainment ante is upped in Act Three with the lively music of Michael Friedman.  The style as I mentioned is elaborate, grotesque and frankly a little creepy.  This might sound weird but it felt a little Wagnerian (based on my only reference point for Wagner which is, of course, the Bugs Bunny episode "What's Opera, Doc?"). So not really Wagner but Wagner as read through Looney Tunes (as Looney Tunes was doing homages long before the Simpsons this reference seems spot on for this show).  The music might be upbeat but the message is dark and seemed a little on the nose (but what allegory isn't a bit of a sledgehammer in its "message"). It did not wholly work for me.  But I was willing to go to the strange place the troupe was taking me.  I did not have fun in that strange place but that did not really seem to be the point. 

I hope this work continues to evolve (I have bought the play and I have heard it has already changed a lot in this staging).  I was surprised and delighted by many aspects of the play and even Act Three challenged me in a way that not all theater does.  It's a risky work and I'm glad they took those risks.    It closes July 1.  Hurry to DC!

*There was a man sitting in the front row writhing in his seat because he clearly knew every line of the episode and wanted to shout them out to the actors. Should the world end and he survives, I hope he finds his way to the right campfire.

**I wish I had studied any Japanese theater but the use of masks and the distancing effects employed in Act Three seemed Kabuki or Noh-like.  I'm not sure which and I feel like just using Wikipedia to figure this out would be even worse.  You tell me.

***Ok this is not some sort of weird blood oath or anything. I just kinda thought that this "adopt-a-performer" approach might get me out of my traditional theater comfort zone.  I would never have gotten down to DC or visited the lovely Woolly Mammoth Theatre were it not for my strict adherence to my pledge. And I was really interested in seeing more work by The Civilians and Steven Cosson.  So it was win-win-win for me.