Wednesday, August 10, 2022

Review: Mr. Burns, A Post-Electric Play Has Storytelling At Its Heart

Who: 9M Theatre
What: Mr. Burns, A Post-Electric Play
Length: Approximately 130 minutes
Where: The Gasworks (141 Park Street North)
When: June 17, 18, 23, 24, 25 at 8pm & June 18 at 2pm
Tickets: $25 at

When the world ends as a result of nuclear disaster, what do we need to survive? Clean air, water, canned goods, and- according to Mr. Burns, A Post-Electric Play, we also need The Simpsons.

In its first production since the pandemic, 9M Theatre made a conscious decision to return with Mr. Burns, a three-act story which in itself, is about a post-apocalyptic future. Timing, as they say, is everything and the production openly wrestled with whether presenting this tale of an apocalyptic future was too soon- or just timely enough.

In its writing, playwright Anne Washburn examined how pop culture and the stories we share as a society might survive, at one point, having a character poignantly ask “What will endure when the cataclysm arrives — when the grid fails, society crumbles and we’re faced with the task of rebuilding?” Over the course of the two-hour performance, the audience is asked to examine this question and its short and long-term consequences.

“What will endure when the cataclysm arrives — when the grid fails, society crumbles and we’re faced with the task of rebuilding?”

Quote from Mr. Burns, A Post-Electric Play

As Mr. Burns opens, we meet a small group of survivors, recounting from memory the “Cape Feare” episode of The Simpsons. Opening shortly after a terrible tragedy has fallen upon the world, these individuals are building a connection through stories to maintain their humanity. A significant portion of the start of the show is dedicated to the plot of this episode; so much so, that a familiarity with both the episode and the series is needed to follow the dialogue between characters. Act Two, which takes place seven years later, as this same group has transformed into a travelling theatrical troupe that recreates old episodes of The Simpsons (including commercials). The third act presents a stylized opera/Greek performance with music composed by the late Michael Friedman (best known for his work on Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson) and accompanied by 9M’s Music Director Luis Arrojo.

Gregory Cruikshank is a standout in the first act as he exudes efforts to recall The Simpsons, channeling just enough desperation, confusion and frustration to be hauntingly relatable to the early days of the pandemic when the world had paused and uncertainty was ever-present. His realistic performance is met by Evelyn Barber, who is equally devoted to the task. Annalee Flint is a nice addition to the second act, while Charles Lo Manto’s Mr. Burns dominates the third act with a vaudevillian performance. Whether this is intentional or not, the approach provides some lightheartedness in the overall tone of the show.

The writing itself is chaotic, filled with popular culture references and callbacks while also trying to present a larger philosophical question. At three acts, and over two hours, Director Liz Buchanan had a lot of material, and an ambitious play to manage. There are many points in the production where the sentiment isn’t fully realized, or there is significant ambiguity as to what is occurring in the production. Given the devastation of the opening act, it’s surprising that a motivational point for a character- that they lost a child- is brushed aside when it is revealed. A pivotal story about radiation poisoning doesn’t keep pace and misses its mark. In both the first and second act, there are moments of uncertainty; the final moments the first act ends so abruptly, I asked the person I was with what I had missed in the plot. During the second act, it is never made clear what is actually happening onstage- leaving a medley of chart-topping hits feeling out-of-place, rather than as a moment of joy, or as part of a live-performed commercial.

The script of Mr. Burns seems flexible enough that there would be options for how it could be interpreted. Given the events, and the fact that much of it is based on a cartoon, it would not need to be rooted in realism; and given the events of the past two years, could benefit from that approach. A hyper-realistic approach could also be equally effective for the same reasons. Buchanan doesn’t choose a path, or find a balance, leaving this play feeling both unapproachable and uncomfortably relevant at different times. The set (designed by Pat Skinner) provides no hint as to the approach. The set is simplistic, but versatile; allowing for key pieces to be transformed, or easily incorporated into the performance, but this seems more of necessity due to lack of storage space than meaningfully contributing to the production.

While the first act only has a brief moment of song, by the third act, music has become another player in the production; and another aspect to manage. There are plenty of opportunities within the third act to showcase the vocal talents of the cast; who were enthusiastic, but came across as timid and disjointed in a way that suggested this element is under-rehearsed. Hopefully, this improves as the show’s run continues. 

But the enthusiasm and eagerness from the ensemble, which included Scott Buchanan, Justin Shaw, Kathleen Reilley and Kiran Matharu to be performing for a live audience again was palpable; a reflection of the desperation of the characters they were performing. These acts of construction, deconstruction and reconstruction serve not only as a metaphor for the past two years, but also for the work of theatre itself. Within this concept, Mr. Burns finds its greatest truth, and the audience can find their greatest inspiration. Regardless of the events of the world, there will be a constant need for human connection and the telling and retelling of stories.

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