If you've ever sat around with friends and reminisced about TV shows or movies you've seen, with everyone contributing their personal threads of memory, you know what playwright Anne Washburn is up to in Mr. Burns: A Post-Electric Play.
Indeed, the central idea that powers Mr. Burns: A Post-Electric Play is so delicious, you may put it in a mental jar, pull it out every now and then, and savor it for weeks. Essentially, the words of a popular animated TV show, The Simpsons, morph from a survival tool for post-apocalyptic survivors, to a major engine of commerce, and then to a ritualized operetta envisioning Bart as a savior of humanity.
If that sounds like a heavy lift, you're right. And as this three act, two-and-a-half hour production continues, playwright Washburn gets more and more tangled up in her thoughts. This results in a third act that, while deliriously adventurous, continually steps on the teeth of one garden rake after another, thereby slapping itself and the audience in the forehead with the handle.
If that particular slapstick sequence sounds familiar, you're probably a fan of The Simpsons, and that's a good thing for the viewers of this play. At the start of this complex pop-culture infused dystopian extravaganza, a small gaggle of random people has gathered after a cataclysmic, nationwide nuclear disaster of some sort. As a result, the power grid is down, electronic and other media have been silenced, and the survivors are left alone to make sense of their lives.
As humans have done since the beginning of time, they fall back on stories they remember to calm their fears. In this case, that means an in-depth discussion of one Simpsons episode, titled "Cape Feare," which was a hilarious parody of the Martin Scorsese film of the same name. That flick starred Robert DeNiro as the terrifying psychopath Max Cady, who is out to wreak vengeance on his former lawyer. (The Scorsese film was a remake of the original Cape Fear, with Robert Mitchum in the Cady role.)
In the Simpsons version, the villainous Cady is velvet-voiced Sideshow Bob, who is paroled from prison and begins to stalk Bart with lethal intent because Bart helped put him in the slammer. This is the episode that the survivors cling to as they peer fearfully into the blackness surrounding them. In this initial stanza of Mr. Burns, Trey Gilpin as Matt nicely captures the warp and weft of the Simpsons characters, and Tim Keo, as interloper Gibson, has some fun with a song from the Gilbert & Sullivan show H.M.S. Pinafore. Also joining in are reflective Maria (Cathleen O'Malley), laconic Sam (Evan Thompson) and skittish Jenny (Nicole Sumlin).
In the second act, placed seven years in the future, a troupe of players remembers those old TV episodes, as well as music and other cultural arcana from the past. They are now turning their memories into mini-theatricals, complete with commercials for now non-existent products, that they perform for paying audiences. As they rehearse their material, joined by Beth Wood as director Colleen and Abigail Anika Svigelj as lead actor Quincy, they bitch about competing acting companies that have an edge on them. "It kills me they've got Streetcar," says one. And that reference is not to the classic stage play by Tennessee Williams but the classic Simpsons parody, "A Streetcar Named Marge."
Yes, popular culture has swallowed "traditional" culture whole, triggering questions about the arbitrary decisions we make about the relative value of art. And while Washburn's second act has some delightful moments, such as a choreographed montage of pop songs performed by the entire cast, the dialogue often seems disconnected and difficult to follow. And a violent event darkens the mood even further.
This leads us to the concluding act which takes place in the same location where both the Cape Fear movies end: on a houseboat. And now, the cast of Mr. Burns reappears as Simpsons characters, singing a stiff and morality-laden musical passion play. This is when Megan Elk joins the cast as Simpsons' school teacher Edna Krabappel, to lend her operatic pipes to the original music composed by Michael Friedman, with lyrics by Washburn.
Though one can't help but be impressed by the degree of risk-taking going on here, the third act leap is more engaging in theory than in execution. Even with Thompson acting his socks off as an irradiated and homicidal Mr. Burns, and even with Sumlin doing her best as a singing Bart, this finale feels more mystifying than satisfying.
That's a shame, since gifted director Matthew Wright and the stellar CPT designers throw everything but the kitchen sink at this production. The ideas at work in this play are arresting, even quite stimulating. But the playwright's reach eventually exceeds her grasp as the play limps to a curiously unaffecting end. But before that, as Homer would say: Woo-hoo! It's quite a ride.
Mr. Burns: A Post-Electric Play
Through March 5 at Cleveland Public Theatre 6415 Detroit Ave., 216-631-2727, cptonline.org