University Theatre’s final production of the 2016-2017 season is ending the school year not with a fizzle, but a bang. Playwright Anne Washburn’s 2012 creation, “Mr. Burns, A Post-Electric Play,” is a bold and unabashedly weird piece of art that follows survivors of a nuclear apocalypse as they remember and retell the story of “The Simpsons” episode “Cape Feare.”
Director Tricia Rodley’s production is a wonderful and visceral staging of a complicated play. With the help of a strong cast and smart production design, Rodley tackles a play that received mixed reviews at many major theaters in the country.
Washburn’s writing, though its thesis about the cultural residue of storytelling is brilliant, struggles to balance the play’s many moving parts. The play asks important questions, as good theater does, but Washburn’s broad and shifting focus is sometimes too much for an audience to handle. This isn’t to say that the play isn’t worth the watch — it is; however, “Mr. Burns” is not for those expecting an easy or passive theater experience.
The show takes place in three separate time frames. It opens on a group of nuclear apocalypse survivors passing the time by simply recounting “Cape Feare,” and then switches to seven years later when theatre troupes tour the country reenacting television episodes complete with commercials and costuming. The third act, 75 years in the future, features a full-blown melodramatic and musical version of “Cape Feare” complete with gold body paint and Britney Spears’ song “Toxic.”
At its core, “Mr. Burns” is a nuanced exploration of how stories change over time. By swapping some characters for others and tweaking each presentation of “Cape Feare” in the show, Washburn shows how our culture now could be the basis for a new society.
While the first act spends ample time introducing the post-apocalyptic world, the ensemble carries this weight well, Some of the slower moments in the writing (parts of the dialogue are lifted from Washburn’s own experience retelling the episode) are made easier because of the acting.
Matt (played by sophomore Ryan Sayegh) and Gibson (junior Riley Olson) stand out for their “Simpsons” impressions. The actors’ comedic timing makes the dark and often referential comedy accessible to those who might feel lost in the play’s long, odd monologues.
The second act builds on the foundation that the first act put in place, but two new characters appear without explanation or background. While the first act explores the immediate aftermath of the apocalypse, the second shows society’s growth while the survivors struggle to mount their production of “Cape Feare” in a competitive environment.
During this act, more world building happens. The survivors discuss the world as it is in the moment. Where all the Diet Coke go? Some characters say it was all “trucked to Denver.” The characters also stage a musical number of the previous society’s greatest hits, some of which appear in the third and final act.
While Michael Malek Najjar’s “The Dead” and J.K Rodger’s “Emperor of the Moon” stand out from this season, “Mr. Burns” may be the one production people truly remember. Tricia Rodley’s production steals the spotlight. And for better or for worse, the bold show may define the future of UO Theatre.
Follow Sararosa on Twitter at @srosiedosie.