I’m glad the Selma Arts Center brought the weird and cerebrally feisty “Mr. Burns: A Post-Electric Play” to central San Joaquin Valley audiences.
Anne Washburn’s 2012 dark comedy, which imagines a post-apocalyptic world in which theatrical interpretations of old episodes of “The Simpsons” TV series become the origin myth for a new culture, is a rollicking brain-wallop. It’s the kind of fresh, contemporary piece of theater that can have you marveling at its originality, bathing in its philosophical undercurrents and – yes – rolling your eyes at its ostentatious excesses.
With this local premiere, the Selma company aimed high.
Unfortunately, director Juan L. Guzman and his hard-working actors are swamped by the show’s complicated demands. With the play’s colliding styles – ranging from a haunting, introspective realism to a campy, pop-culture exuberance – it’s a challenge for Guzman just to get the narrative across. The directing and acting in this earnest but overwhelmed production can’t keep up with the material. It lacks the finesse needed to corral Washburn’s intellectually meandering experience into a charged and meaningful audience experience.
Did I mention that on top of all the other quirks of the show, the third act becomes a full-fledged, overly mannered musical with influences of Greek tragedy, English operetta and an Eminem song done as a ritualistic chthonic chorale thrown in? It’s as if the playwright purposely ramped up the level of difficulty as a badge of honor.
The production’s first act nearly sinks the show before it can get any sort of momentum going. We meet a group of hardened survivors who have banded together to confront a nationwide nuclear disaster. Passing the time, they try to reconstruct from memory the “Cape Feare” episode from “The Simpsons.” A newcomer to the group arrives, bringing news from the outside world.
All of this takes place around a campfire as an extended conversation, which is a much bigger theatrical challenge than you might think. The act’s pacing becomes a long, hard slog. When there are tonal changes – when one character suddenly recalls an important line from “Cape Feare” and startles the rest of the group, for example – there’s no sense of rhythm or syncopation to the direction.
The second act, set seven years later, when the group of survivors has morphed into an acting company that specializes in “The Simpsons,” has more of a bounce. A series of reenacted “commercials” adds appeal. (These people would give up a lot for a crisp Diet Coke over ice.) The writing here can be flabby and unfocused, but it’s also intellectually exuberant. Yes, the narrative requires a hefty suspension of disbelief – why would society be demanding “The Simpsons” in authentic form? Wouldn’t live entertainment of any kind satisfy a technology-depleted public? – but if you’re willing to go with the premise, it can be a fun, wild ride.
And then comes the musical in the third act, set 75 years later, requiring everything from a Greek chorus made up of minor “Simpsons” characters to elaborate costumes (nicely done by Guzman and Jose Barriga) that turn Marge’s blue hair into a regal headdress of plumage and vegetation. As this new civilization has gotten farther away from the source material, “The Simpsons” has become distorted and mythologized in the manner of such epic poems as “The Iliad.”
This is the strongest act in the production. Nicolette C. Andersen offers a plaintive portrayal of Bart (along with a fine singing voice). And Bryan DeBaets offers a chilling performance as Mr. Burns, with his character symbolizing radiation itself, presumably. Or perhaps the death of the culture that gave us Homer and Bart in the first place?
It’s a lot to absorb, and, I think with a stronger production, much in which to revel. I commend the Selma company for taking the risk, but this time, it came up short.
Mr. Burns, A Post-Electric Play
- Through Oct. 1
- www.selmaartscenter.com, 559-891-2238