By Eric Marchese
December 7, 2017 at 2:42 pm
December theater productions that don't revolve around the holidays are as rare as hen's teeth, which makes "Mr. Burns, a Post-Electric Play" a most welcome addition to this month's stage offerings.
Anne Washburn's play got its California premiere courtesy of Alchemy Theatre Company, whose new staging at Costa Mesa Playhouse is the Orange County premiere.
Not only is "Mr. Burns" not related to Christmas; it's about as far removed from the holiday spirit as you can get.
The premise is a U.S. "in the very near future" that has suffered a catastrophic loss of its electrical grid. The play follows a small band of survivors, at first in what's essentially similar to our own times (Act One), then seven years later (Act Two). Act Three unfolds 75 years beyond that.
Washburn's characters have found a way to soften the blow of a terribly bleak scenario: To distract themselves and divert attention from their plight, they re-enact episodes of "The Simpsons" entirely from memory.
The pivotal "Simpsons" episode depicted and retold is Season Five's "Cape Feare," a "Cape Fear" spoof in which Sideshow Bob, voiced by Kelsey Grammer, terrorizes Bart and his family.
Act One depicts this activity in the same vein as friends sitting around a campfire. In Act Two, the group has become a touring company that takes its live re-creations of "Simpsons" episodes from city to city, apparently in competition with other similar troupes.
By Act Three, the beloved "Simpsons" characters have become archetypes, elevated to the status of mythological figures worshiped in a Greek tragedy-like grand opera.
The focal characters of the near future are survivalists Matt (Brian Pirnat), Jenny (Tara Pitt), Maria (Brooke Lewis) and Sam (Craig Jackman). Newcomer Gibson (Phil Nieto) is at first viewed as an intruder but is eventually welcomed into their circle.
If anything, director Jeff Lowe's staging more than adequately communicates the aimlessness of this group's existence and their near desperation to find meaning in a post-apocalyptic society.
On the minus side, the events that transpire in "Mr. Burns" are more momentous and earth-shattering for the play's characters than they are for us. Surely, Washburn could have devised ways to more effectively draw us into their plight and make us feel what they feel.
Pirnat exhibits a marked talent for re-creating the voices of "Simpsons" characters, including Mr. Burns, Homer, Moe and others, making his work some of the production's most enjoyable. The play's final segment fully delivers Pirnat as an oily Burns bent on destroying Lewis' plucky Bart.
The task of imitating Grammer's well-known Sideshow Bob persona falls to Nieto, and he doesn't disappoint – especially in capturing that actor's distinctively theatrical line readings.
Alas, though Lowe's cast is likable, we watch their characters' struggles from a comfortable remove. Their instinctive efforts to preserve American pop culture are almost painful to witness, proving that Washburn misses one opportunity after another to create, or re-create, satirical versions of TV shows and commercials.
Ah, what could have been. "The Simpsons" quickly established itself in the minds (and hearts) of millions of fans for its razor-sharp satirical edge and riotous, almost dead-on parodies of all forms of entertainment stretching back for centuries. If "Mr. Burns" had even a fraction of that wit and devastating comedic skill, it would make for an evening of theater well spent.
"Mr. Burns" does offer some visual and technical delights, starting with Lowe's lighting and sound effects. Loralee Barlow Boyes' costumes credibly transform the cast into the beloved "Simpsons" characters, and Tucker Boyes' scenic design incorporates cartoon-like elements of the series, including an Act Two flat that's a spot-on duplicate of the Simpsons' living room.
"Mr. Burns" features an original score composed by Michael Friedman, with song lyrics by Washburn. All are primarily heard in Act Three, with musical director Jessica Cosley playing keyboard and assorted instruments, Bob Barlow on guitar, and Peter Kaufinger on percussion. But as with the script, there's little of merit or worthy of note in these musical portions.
"Mr. Burns, a Post-Electric Play" is highly original and clearly experimental – but while originality is to be applauded, there is such a thing as pushing the envelope to the point where the audience is left behind.
Note to our readers: Arrive early enough to the theater and you'll be treated to a screening of the entire "Simpsons" episode of "Cape Feare" on a "Simpsons"-like TV set – a bonus that partly redeems the shortcomings of "Mr. Burns."
'Mr. Burns: A Post-Electric Play'
When: Through Dec. 16. 8 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays
Where: Costa Mesa Playhouse, 661 Hamilton St., Costa Mesa
Length: 2 hours, 30 minutes
Suitability: Adults and teens (for language)
Information: (949) 650-5269, http://www.costamesaplayhouse.com