Playwright: Anne Washburn; music by Michael Friedman. At: Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont Ave. Tickets: 1-773-975-8150; www.TheaterWit.org; $38 ( $25 if 29 or under ). Runs through: March 1
In Act I of this intelligent but disturbing play, television's The Simpsons is a fondly-remembered program in the near-future ( think I Love Lucy episodes ). In Act II, seven years later, The Simpsons is recreated in live performances in a make-shift studio without actual broadcast technology. In Act III, 75 years later, The Simpsons appears to have become an object of veneration. Each act sports a different theatrical style and different characters. There's no continuity except The Simpsons frame of reference. Mr. Burns, A Post-Electric Play will be a wasted evening if you don't know the show at all.
The play appears to be set after a nuclear catastrophe has destroyed the electric grid, if not industrial civilization altogether, but playwright Anne Washburn never actually says this or explains what's going on or why. Mr. Burns is bewildering because it's completely without context. It seems we are to infer a conclusion from a fact of The Simpsons: the show's powerful and villainous industrial oligarch, Mr. Burns, owns a nuclear power plant.
Act I features a family group sitting before a charcoal fire in the woods, guarding their turf with a rifle, and reconstructing famous episodes of The Simpsons from memory. It's low-key, conversational, gently comic in tone and feels long and slow. In Act II, actors armed with guns struggle to recreate The Simpsons accurately. Without access to the originals ( post-electric, remember ), they buy lines from sources who remember bits and pieces. Others, they reveal, similarly recreate other popular TV shows. At the end of the act, unseen gunmen break into the studio and the ensuing shoot-out leaves several characters dead or wounded. It's a serious shock ending to a lively act which features several musical numbers.
Act III is a through-sung operaor perhaps it is meant to be a religious pageantin which the characters are The Simpsons themselves. They are murdered by Mr. Burns, acquire wings and ascend to heaven ( ? ) except for Bart, who sword fights Mr. Burns to the deaths. This act is not at all funny, yet many audience members laughed. The Simpsons, after all, is a sardonic animated show and cartoons inherently are funny.
Except for Act I's slow pace ( perhaps necessary ), this meta-theatrical production is lively, imaginative andwellcartoon-like under director Jeremy Wechsler. All design elements and the focused performances of the eight-member cast are bang-on. The stylistic transitions are seamless. In some ways it's a riveting show because one expects it to snap into focus, make sense or offer explanations. It never does. The best sense I can extract is that Washburn is exploring how story becomes myth becomes faith ... and the journey is both scary and absurd.