Saturday, 23 February 2019

REVIEW: Mr Burns – A Post-Electric Play by Anne Washburn

The ensemble cast of Mr Burns: A Post-Electric Play play
a company of actors re-telling The Simpson's "Cape Feare"
Photo: Sarah Walker
How well do remember the episode of The Simpsons where Sideshow Bob gets out of jail and tries to murder Bart? If you needed to tell the story, could you? Do you remember any of the jokes or set-pieces? How about the film references contained within?


In the first act of Mr Burns: A Post-Electric Play, a group of survivors in a post-Apocalyptic America gather together around a fire, trying to remember the details of “Cape Feare”, the second episode of the fifth season of The Simpsons, which first aired in 1993 and has been replayed thousands of times since.

The grid is offline, nuclear power-plants have melted down, and in the weeks and months after this world-wide disaster, people are telling stories to pass the time and to connect with each other. This is and isn’t people telling ghost stories around a fire; the details are important, and this TV show is haunting them.

Telling stories and passing them on is a recurring trope in fiction about the end of the world. Beyond survival, people want to remember the world that has come before and recount the stories they remember from childhood. But in the early twenty-first century, we aren’t trying to piece together The Odyssey or a childhood tale like The Faraway Tree, we are putting pop culture back together and resurrecting the seminal work of Matt Groening.

“Cape Feare” is itself a parody of the 1991 film Cape Fear, which is a remake of the 1962 film of the same name – based on the novel The Executioners by John D. Macdonald. And this episode doesn’t just reference this lineage, it sketches in nods to another film starring Robert Mitchum (lead actor in the original and a cameo in the 1991 film), Night of the Hunter.

The survivors are trying to piece together an episode of television that is already pieces of other broken narratives. The world has ended and nothing quite fits together anymore. And even as they have established a routine and precautions, these people are on edge – who knows the loyalties of other survivors when they approach their camp. As fun as references to The Simpsons are, there is a palpable dread by the firelight.

Lightning Jar Theatre have a reputation for solid productions of recent plays that might not find their way onto Melbourne’s main stages. After Stupid Fucking Bird and Venus in Furs, they have turned their focus to a meta-theatrical wonder that is about storytelling and inheritance; about culture and cultural capital. It’s a gem of a play by Anne Washburn.

Act one meets your expectations; this is a kind of story-telling comfort food. Washburn picks a show many of us know and an episode that is considered a classic. As Matt (Dylan Watson) tries his best to re-enact something most of us are vaguely familiar with, we’re with these characters around a campfire – a classic storytelling setting – but it’s a fire in a barrel, which is a touchstone image for the end-of-the-world.

As you might expect from The Stand or The Walking Dead, an approaching stranger is the key narrative driver in this first scene. Does he bring salvation or death? Does he bring news of the rest of the world or the Sideshow Bob punchline that Matt has been looking for?

Act two is seven years later and stories are things to trade and sell. The survivors are now a theatre company. Yes, The Simpsons episodes are the headline act, but there’s also a kick-arse montage of music-video moves – and ads trying to sell the hope that you might find a can of Diet Coke out there somewhere.

Here Emma Choy’s Colleen is in charge as the director of the ensemble. She’s struggling with how to build frivolous entertainment in a world where everything has portent and meaning. Years after the fall of civilisation, is it time for people to start wanting things again? Petty jealousies are starting to spring up and this feels much like the world getting back on its feet, but darkness still lurks at the fringes.

Act three is much further into the future and the theatre is transformed into something otherworldly. As the survivors become more and more disconnected from the earth that was, the snippets of story and memory, dream and music video are mashed-up to a point where characters take on the mantle of the iconic and the sacred.

In this post-electric world, the central form of dramatic art becomes theatre again. With film and television gone, people are telling stories in the only ways they can; each act adding more and more theatrical devices to the mix.

Under the superb direction of John Kachoyan, Mr Burns is a celebration of theatre itself – and watching the evolution of that throughout the production is quite stunning. There’s an assured focus in act one, warmly and effectively lit by Richard Vabre. Dylan Watson’s Matt is strong as the central figure here, the other survivors supporting him as he tells a story they’ve seen and heard before.

Act two’s rolling sets by Sophie Woodward bring us into the world of repertory theatre, her costumes alluding to The Simpsons but faded because of memory and twisted due to post-Apocalyptic budget restraints. Julie Grenda’s choreography takes centre stage late in the piece, showcasing dance moves that will outlive us all.

Lightning Jar’s ensemble of actors impresses in a section that is more animated and comical than the first. Victory Ndukwe’s quiet restraint in act one gives way to moments of hilarity here. Mark Yeates brings the kind of cackling joy you expect from Sideshow Bob. But Emma Choy is the standout here – giving us a real sense of trying to keep things together, even as she doesn’t understand how these plays fit into the world anymore.

While the cast is strong overall, though some of their American accents are shaky, especially early on. Perhaps they relaxed into it, maybe my ears did, but it was a pity this was such a problem. I often think that eschewing accents is better than bad ones, but for this particular play it might have presented other problems if we’d heard these lines in ‘Strayan.

I felt the length of the play a couple of times; the long transition into act two made it feel like the show was starting again once the lights were back up. And while the third act is striking visually, and the threads do draw together neatly, it doesn’t reach the apotheosis the script is aiming for. The play evolves into a musical, but the production doesn’t quite nail all the required elements – though Woodward’s costumes are stunning.

Andrew Patterson’s musical direction is wonderful, but some of the actors struggle with the songs. I had trouble hearing some of the lyrics – which is not a problem I had with dialogue earlier in the show.

There are a lot of great ideas in Washburn’s play and it’s a striking story about telling stories. Lightning Jar Theatre’s production might be a little rough around the edges, but when it works, it works – I just wish I had engaged with it more after interval. I’d heard a lot of great things about this play from when it was produced in New York and Los Angeles and Sydney. I guess sometimes hearing tales of how great something is over and over might set expectations too high.

But sometimes you have to see that story told for yourself, because hearing about it is not enough.


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