Anne Washburn’s “Mr. Burns: A Post-Electric Play” would be a challenging venture for any theater company, even one as identified for producing bold new works as Sacramento’s own Capital Stage. The three-act play presents a vision of life in a community bereft of electricity in a country (or maybe a world?) that has been struck with a cataclysmic event (or series of events) that has wiped out much of the population and left the survivors with little to do but remember cultural detritus.
In the case of the small band of survivors we meet as the play begins, that detritus is “The Simpsons,” the highly popular animated TV show that begins its 27th season in two weeks. In particular, the group is focused on a specific episode, entitled “Cape Feare,” from season five of the show. In it, the 10-year-old Bart Simpson is sent death threats by an evil character named Sideshow Bob. (The episode was loosely based on the two “Cape Fear” films, the first starring Robert Mitchum, the second Robert De Niro.)
As the play begins, the survivors are fascinated by the dialogue from that episode, and much of the first act consists of the excitement various members of the group feel as they remember key lines. A group project, of sorts, emerges. In the second act, set seven years later, the same group, with a few additions, has perfected the episode and is in rehearsal to put on a production of it, complete with costumes (primarily wigs and head covers) that are modeled after the cartoon characters.
The humor throughout these two acts is largely based on the references to the TV series (and other cultural tidbits, including two of Gilbert and Sullivan’s most famous operettas). But it’s a dark humor that is overladen with a sense of foreboding and depression, such as might be expected in a post-apocalyptic (or “post-electric”) world. (Ms. Washburn’s script only alludes to the nature of the catastrophe that has beset humanity; at one point nuclear plant explosions are suggested.)
And then there is the third act, which is set seventy-five years later. Suffice to say, it is as unsettling and uncertain as it is bold and bizarre. Whether it makes the play or destroys it is probably up to the viewer. In our case, we found it overdone and undernourished, as in too long and insufficiently prepped. Others at the opening night we attended were either raving or hiding bemused uncertainty behind comments about the excellent cast and the first-rate production.
So let’s go there. Yes, the eight-person cast is excellent. Each actor fully conveys the characters each is assigned. And they are assigned various roles, especially in that very unusual third act. And the production, the first under the tenure of new Producing Artistic Director Michael Stevenson (who undertook the direction responsibilities himself), is thoroughly professional in every respect. (Jonathan Williams, whom Mr. Stevenson replaced and who most certainly deserves credit for having chosen the play, designed the sets; Gail Russell was responsible for the costumes; Ed Lee handled the sound and pre-recorded music; and David Taylor provided the on-stage musical accompaniment in the third act.)
Those talented actors were (in order of appearance) John P. Lamb, Katie Rubin, Dena Martinez, Jouni Kirjola, Tiffanie Mack, Kirk Blackinton, Amanda Salazar, and Elizabeth Holzman. All are to be commended, but we were especially taken with Mr. Kirjola’s depiction of the demented Mr. Burns and Ms. Salazar’s portrayal of Bart (both in the third act) as well as Mr. Lamb, Ms. Martinez and Mr. Blackinton throughout the production.
So, are we recommending “Mr. Burns”? Absolutely. It’s a play needs to be seen, if for no other reason than to understand what the discussion and controversy about what Ms. Washburn has created is all about. Flawed? Yes. Puzzling? Also yes, especially if you aren’t familiar with the TV show or the other cultural references that are sprinkled into the script.
But this is avant-garde theater that creates a buzz. It’s the kind of theater that makes Off-Broadway as important as Broadway. And it’s the kind of theater that Sacramento theater-goers need to support if Off-Broadway theater is to have a lasting presence in California’s capital.
Performances of “Mr. Burns: A Post-Electric Play” will continue through October 4 at the Capital Stage theater. Tickets and information are available at the theater box office (2215 J Street), by phone (916-995-5464) or online (capstage.org).