Some days, I can still remember every frame of my favorite I Love Lucy episode, the one where William Holden is the guest and – oh, it's so funny because at one point he's…well, you'll just have to watch it yourself. Meanwhile, I can never remember things like depreciating theory in accounting, which would seem to be more useful in life. But in Manbites Dog Theater's latest production, Anne Washburn's post-apocalyptic masterpiece Mr. Burns, a Post-Electric Play, remembering television and pop culture is the name of the game when the world collapses and humans are left to the stories they know: those that were on a screen in their living room.
The play opens in the distant future, with a group of people sitting around a campfire attempting to remember The "Cape Feare" episode of The Simpsons. In this quotable Cape Fear parody episode, Sideshow Bob escapes from prison and seeks revenge on Bart Simpson and his family on their houseboat. But those who don't know much about the TV show need not worry, as the joy from the play comes from watching these characters attempt to remember a thing they hold near and dear.
When the group finds a stranger in the woods, we learn that some form of fallout has occurred, causing the electrical grid to fail and sending the entire US (maybe the world) into darkness. Now people travel by foot across the country with homemade books of survivors' names on hand in hopes they may come across others who know their loved ones. The only comfort through these hard times is television — or, recreating the television memories that remain. That seems to be the one thing that survives the "post-electric" times.
Fast forward seven years, the group has now become a full-fledged theatre troupe, rehearsing commercials and recreating the "Cape Feare" episode to stay competitive with other troupes around the country. Lines from The Simpsons are sold for batteries and food, so staying competitive is a means of survival. And by Act III — well, I can't spoil the show.
Washburn's play, which premiered in 2012 at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company in Washington D.C., is a wonderment of a script, full of clear ideas and questions about society's future and what we are left to when the world around us turns off. Where most movies and plays set in post-apocalyptic times deal with characters trying to figure out the logic of why the disaster has occurred, the chilling aspect of Mr. Burns comes from its characters choosing not to face the fact that people all around are dying and, instead, escape through the comfort of mindless entertainment.
Manbites Dog's production is not mindless, though; in fact, it is highly entertaining. The production is notable for how the individual cast members work as a collective unit, providing top-notch acting, unrestrained characterizations, and ultimate hilarity. (Be on the look out for a standout musical performance in Act II that will make you actually enjoy the Top 40 hits of today.) The always-stunning Lormarev Jones stood out for her vocals and heartfelt ballads in Act II and Marcia Edmundson gave a chilling monologue in Act I that sent shivers down my spine.
On Derrick Ivey's creatively spare set, the actors do an incredible job building the world of the play around us. Jeff A.R. Jones' choreography and fight direction moves the actors to and fro with grace and power. You must be constantly alert so as to catch every smart thing he has done with them.
This production was funded in part by a grant through the Duke University Arts and Sciences Research Council, commissioning new music by Bart Matthews. The music stands out in Act II for its highly original, cleverly constructed style. Matthews' music borders on pop and operetta every once and a while, and suitably fits the vocal ranges of his actors.
This play is a departure from the typical Manbites production, which tends to be a bit more on the weighty side. In fact, when the lights came up on the first scene, it took audience members a few minutes to realize that this play was a comedy. That's a high compliment to Manbites for training its audiences to expect deeply serious theatre from the moment the lights come up. But despite the show's pervasive humor, director Jeff Storer understands the dread underneath Washburn's darkly comedic script. Storer is an expert manipulator, tapping into the primal fears we have as humans about what happens when we no longer have what has become a basic necessity of life: electricity. But what if something worse than what has already happened, happens? What can be worse than no electricity?
Even with these deeply felt questions to ponder, these characters perform their theatre productions with so much glee that I was reminded of the line from Cabaret, "Leave your troubles outside. So, life is disappointing? Forget it! In here, life is beautiful." The glee alone from this entire production made the evening of theatre better than a night on the couch enjoying mindless entertainment.
Mr. Burns, a Post-Electric Play continues through Saturday, November 7. For more details on this production, please view the sidebar.