‘Simpsons’ future is bleak in ‘Mr. Burns’ 

click to enlarge Andrea Wollenberg portrays the narrator of a futuristic performance piece in “Mr. Burns, a post-electric play” onstage at American Conservatory Theater. - COURTESY KEVIN BERNE
  • COURTESY KEVIN BERNE
  • Andrea Wollenberg portrays the narrator of a futuristic performance piece in “Mr. Burns, a post-electric play” onstage at American Conservatory Theater.
Anne Washburn is exploring an intriguing idea in "Mr. Burns, a post-electric play," now at American Conservatory Theater: how collective cultural memory and storytelling might function, and transmute, in a post-apocalyptic society.

And Washburn's use of a play-within-a-play based on Matt Groening's iconic TV cartoon show, "The Simpsons," is imaginative and potentially wildly entertaining. But only potentially.

Initially, five survivors of an American nuclear plant meltdown sit around a campfire, guarding their territory with guns. In a clever layering of references, they're verbally reconstructing the "Cape Feare" episode of "The Simpsons," which is a parody of the 1991 horror movie "Cape Fear" – itself a remake of the 1962 movie.

But as they struggle to remember and recite each and every line of that episode, you might start wishing you were watching the TV show itself instead of this long and painstaking effort at recapitulation.

Plus, under Mark Rucker's (usually astute) direction, there's a too-carefully-orchestrated quality to the actors' performances; the feeling of spontaneity that should exist among the characters just doesn't ring true.

When a newcomer (played by Jim Lichtscheidl) wanders into the camp, the survivors each recite the names of their missing loved ones, hoping he's run into them in his travels. Like the discussion of "Cape Feare" itself, that meant-to-be-heartbreaking ritual goes on too long.

Seven years later, the group is rehearsing a play based on "Simpsons" episodes, including commercials for products no longer available but, understandably, yearned for. Yet the scene they're rehearsing (and re-rehearsing) is bland, and the fact that they're competing with other troupes for the best "Simpsons" re-enactments falls flat. Seventy-five years later, the "Cape Feare" episode has morphed into a sort of horror opera in which Bart and his yellow-skinned family are held captive by the evil Mr. Burns and his cohorts, Itchy and Scratchy, on a houseboat, with various other musical and textual elements melded in.

It's a comical and thrilling vision, lavishly staged and beautifully performed, with live music by David Moschler and Andrea Wollenberg (score by Michael Friedman, set by Ralph Funicello, costumes by Alex Jaeger) – but it continues at the same level for too long and, like the previous scenes, eventually becomes tedious.

It's fun to see blue-haired Marge, Groundskeeper Willy, Sideshow Bob and all the rest personified. But "Mr. Burns" would be way more fun, and more meaningful, were it shorter and less talky.

REVIEW

Mr. Burns, a post-electric play

Presented by American Conservatory Theater

Where: 415 Geary St., S.F.

When: Tuesdays-Sundays, closes March 15

Tickets: $20 to $120

Contact: (415) 749-2228, www.act-sf.org

About The Author

Jean Schiffman

Jean Schiffman

Bio:
Jean Schiffman is a freelance arts writer specializing in theatre. Some of her short stories and personal essays have been published in newspapers and small literary magazines. She is an occasional book copy editor and also has a background in stage acting. Her book “The Working Actor’s Toolkit” was published... more
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