This must happen all the time in Oregon: a group of friends gather around a campfire in the woods, reminiscing about their favorite Simpsons episodes. “Remember the one where Sideshow Bob chases Bart around the ship, and they sing HMS Pinafore songs and….”
That’s what happens in the first act of Anne Washburn’s Mr. Burns, a Post-Electric Play, which runs through June 7 at Portland Playhouse. As the half dozen campers dimly try to recall the episode details, laughter and delight follow — until there’s a noise from the woods, and the guns come out.
It’s something of a coup for Portland Playhouse to land a local production so soon after the show earned raves in New York. With its Oregon connections (Washburn is a Reed College alum, and of course Portland’s Matt Groening created the soon-to-be-mythical yellow family) and hip cultural references, Mr. Burns seems an ideal play (or as a program note terms it, a “thought experiment”) for here and now. The show’s sheer weirdness, gleeful eagerness to depart from theatrical convention, ingenious (if hardly original) concept and creative staging by director Brian Weaver do offer intermittent insights, chuckles and grins. And like another play currently running in Oregon, it’s also a testament to the social power of theater and storytelling. Ultimately, though, the story is too diffuse to achieve much more than cleverness.
Since most of Mr. Burns’s value lies in its conceptual audacity, revealing too much about how it works risks spoiling its occasional pleasures. The three-act play actually comprises three stories (each told in one act), each set in a different venue, with the audience first seated outside the theater itself (dress accordingly), then guided to a basement space for Act II (which takes place seven years later and involves some of the same characters as the first), ending with the third act (set 75 years later) in the main performance space.
The concept and tripartite structure, with each act set years after the preceding one, recall Walter M. Miller’s classic 1960 post-apocalyptic novel, A Canticle for Leibowitz, in which an ancient shopping list becomes a venerated object during a dark age when monks desperately try to preserve the vestiges of the past until civilization can be restored, much as monks did in medieval Europe with works of classical antiquity. (In an interview reprinted in the program, Washburn cites not Miller but Stephen King’s The Stand as an influence, along with Euripides’ Orestes.)
In the shattered remnants of Mr. Burns’s civilization, The Simpsons (one of the longest-running and most popular TV shows in history) becomes first a touchstone for memories of happier times, then a competitively valuable commodity to be sold and marketed, and finally (in even more faded form) a near-biblical object of ritual worship. Avoiding overt social commentary, the play offers some trenchant observations about human history and foibles, and its opening sequences set up a potentially powerful speculative satire.
But it never gets there. The first-act episode reminiscing (about one of the series’ finest and most memorable episodes, “Cape Feare,” itself based, like any persistent cultural trope, on an earlier novel and a pair of movies made from it) drags on too long. Even if the reason for piling on the detail is to enlighten Simpsons newbies, it was way too much, for both a certified Bartaholic like me and for my Simpsons–averse playgoing companion.
The second act, too, could stand some editing, though it’s by far the play’s most affecting and powerful episode, featuring an (over) extended song-and-dance sequence that sends the cast through performances of one or two too many pop hits from the 1970s through the early 21st century. Between songs, Washburn deftly works in real drama — fear, tension, and ultimately danger — and the actors mostly deliver, no doubt in part because they’re playing anxious actors in a theater company.
The real letdown occurs in the third act, a mostly percussion-propelled stage musical that turns the actors (and Groening’s belovedly silly characters) into nearly Noh-style ritualistic figures. The program lists no composer, only a musical director (the veteran Eric Nordin), and therein lies the problem: after we get the point (historical amnesia transforms what began as entertainments into myth), there’s little to compel attention, either musically or dramatically. The act feels as long as the first two combined, and twice as tedious. Despite the program’s assurance that this play isn’t about The Simpsons and you don’t have to be a Simpsons fan enjoy it, the act’s main appeal eventually becomes a “spot-the-Simpsons-references” game for devotees, a la Mel Brooks’s Hitchcockamie High Anxiety.
Except for some rudimentary piano notes and other percussive touches, plus a bit of strummed guitar, the music relies on Blitzen Trapper drummer Brian Koch, who does a crackerjack job as both percussionist and actor in the crucial role of Matt. Kemba Shannon also excels as both dancer and choreographer, and Isaac Lamb turns his character, Gibson, into much more than an archetype. The rest of the production (Weaver’s direction, Peter Sander’s designs, Ashton Hull’s costumes, and Rachel Peterson Schmerge’s props) mostly rises to Portland Playhouse’s usual high standards. It’s probably worth seeing — if not exactly exxxx-cellent — if you’re a stone fan of Homer and the gang. I’d rather try a show that boldly tries to innovate, even if it ultimately fails, than any number of conventional B-minus plays that take no chances and provide no more than the usual payoffs.
But for me, none of those pluses (including its sometimes fascinating ideas) compensate for the script’s failure to realize its ambitions, nor its excesses, including a 150-minute run time that would have worked a lot better at 90 (though it still would have felt unfinished), or alternatively, actually developed its third act into a real resolution. One thing that makes the real Simpsons, at its best, so brilliant is its tightness: the show packs more truly potent ideas and jokes per second than any popular entertainment in history. Washburn’s play needs serious doses of that kind of discipline.
Instead, it settles for being a sporadically engaging “thought experiment,” one that some theater fans will be willing to invest $20-$36 and two and a half hours of their weekend to observe. But most experiments, after all, fail, and paying audiences have a right to demand that artists work through the failures, keep working, keep innovating, and save the stage for the successes.
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