Dystopian ‘Mr. Burns’ proves an eerily timely tale in the age of COVID
The crew in Anne Washburn’s post-apocalyptic tale are obsessives, clinging to the world of Homer Simpson and Co. like Odysseus clinging to the mast.
In the first act of Theater Wit’s eerily timely, superficially ridiculous staging of “Mr. Burns, a post-electric play,” the musical’s mood whiplashes between mounting dread and inexorable silliness. At lights up (barely up, per the world the title evokes) we’re in the “very near future,” witnessing a campfire tended by bedraggled LARP enthusiasts specializing in reenactments of episodes of “The Simpsons.”
Actually, “enthusiasts” isn’t right. The crew in Anne Washburn’s post-apocalyptic tale (music by Michael Friedman, lyrics by Washburn) are obsessives, clinging to the world of Homer Simpson and Co. like Odysseus clinging to the mast.
When: Open run
Where: Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont
Tickets: $36 - $54
Run-time: 2 hours and 40 minutes, including two intermissions
Now in an open run directed by Jeremy Wechsler (a revival of the company’s 2015 production), the adventures of the cartoon Simpsons — parents Homer and Marge, their children Bart, Lisa and their arch-enemy Mr. Burns — morph intolore in Washburn’s post-electric world. As years pass, the Simpsons’ adventures become origin stories of a recreated world and cautionary tales of the one that’s been destroyed. It’s as sublime as it is absurd.
Filtered through the Simpsons, shards of dialogue explain what drove the group into the woods: The grid went down. The reactors melted. The cities emptied out, except for the dead left to rot where they fell.
After the first act’s “Mikado”-inspired inspired finale (featuring Jonah D. Winston in a memorable rendition of “Three Little Maids”), the second act picks up seven years later. The campfire collective has pivoted to an embryonic form of capitalism. Survival alone might be insufficient to sustain the soul.
The final act takes place 75 years after the second. Primitive wigs and costumes have been upgraded. A painted backdrop evokes the Simpsons’ adventures as an elaborate cave painting. The battle against evil Mr. Burns starts to resemble something by Sophocles, complete with a chorus of angels delivering chant-like dirges through a blood-drenched denouement.
Under Wechsler’s careful direction, “Mr. Burns” needs to lose a solid 20 minutes, an easy fix given the repetitiveness of some scenes and the obsessively detailed Simpsons’ minutia.
But once the cast production finds its rhythm in the second act, “Mr. Burns” sweeps you into its weirdly funny, dystopian world.
Wechsler’s ensemble maintains energy throughout the show’s wild ride. Everyone is double- or triple-cast, charged with playing both a Simpsons character (or two) and a survivor. As Quincy/Bart, Leslie Ann Sheppard brings the gravity of Odysseus into the petulant bombast of the yellow-haired cartoon child. Bart’s an unlikely charismatic leader, but Sheppard makes him heroic, somehow without dimming his obnoxiousness.
As Sam/Mr. Burns, Andrew Jessop leans into the latter with the ferocity of a chainsaw on blast. He chews the scenery to sawdust. Then, he eats the sawdust. That’s not a read: The more preposterously monstrous Mr. Burns becomes, the more he sucks you into his wickedly charismatic orbit.
And keep an eye on Wil Wilhelm as Jenny/Marge/Mrs. Krabapel. Costumed like a battered, underwater Statue of Liberty, they are the humming coil that runs the length of the third act, sending out vocals that prove “falsetto belt” is not an necessarily an oxymoron.
Costume designers Mara Blumenfeld and Mieka Van der Ploeg’s elaborate, DIY-aesthetic garb is filled with marvels: Laundry baskets serving as petticoats, garbage bags as fit-and-flare skirts, wigs made of buckets, soccer balls and rubber gloves, wings crafted from plastic cutlery.
In the end, “Mr. Burns” is both a story of creation and destruction. Love may win, as the angel chorus tells us, but hate leaves scars. It’s a brutal, compelling message.
NOTE: Proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test from the past 48 hours is required for all audience members per the theater’s safety protocols attheaterwit.org.
Catey Sullivan is a freelance writer.