The Howard Community College Theatre Program is now presenting “Mr. Burns A Post-Electric Play,” written by Anne Washburn with music by Michael Friedman and directed by Bill Gillett, at the Smith Theatre, Horowitz Visual and Performing Arts Center at Howard Community College until October 12, 2019.
The unusual title reflects this very different show. College’s are wonderful venues for experimental theatre, and this musical proves that point. Gillett uses various theatrical elements to make a very strong point. In addition, on college campuses, there are always a large number of talented students, filled with an enthusiasm which helps these productions find casts and audiences willing to take a chance on a relatively unknown play.
“Mr. Burns A Post-Electric Play” is in three acts held together by an episode of “The Simpsons,” Cape Feare. The show opened at the Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company in Washington, D.C. in 2012 and opened at the Playwrights Horizons in NYC in 2013. The first act centers on a group of survivors after an apocalypse where almost all are dead or soon will be. This group, since there is no electricity, thus no television, cell phones and the like, goes back to one of the earliest means of amusing ourselves, storytelling. Except instead of making up their own stories, the group tries to remember, word by word, action by action the aforementioned episode of the long-running cartoon series that now has spanned three generations at least.
“The Simpsons” are part of our common culture. After several minutes of the storytelling, we find out via the entrance of a wanderer, Gibson ((Phillip Guillory) about the state of the United States since the apocalypse. In a touching scene, each character reads a list of family and friends in hopes of getting information about them from the new person. We also realize that they are afraid of marauders as firearms are brandished.
In Act II we jump seven years. The little group now performs as a theatrical troupe and retells in a theatrical narrative, the same episode. They intersperse the tale with popular songs from the 2010s and commercials that we would all find familiar.
Finally, in Act III in what is a cross between Japanese Kabuki theatre and early Greek theatre (masks, people in costumes playing scenery, very toga/kimono type costumes) the episode has now taken over the culture. It is as if the scribes who laboriously rewrote all those Greek dramas for posterity only wrote down one, and not “Oedipus Rex” but “Cyclops.” Mr. Burns (Michael Makar) finally appears as the archetypical villain, and, of course, Bart Simpson (Madeleine Kline) is the hero. The original episode’s story has been changed and combined with other episodes. Only certain aspects of the original tale remain. Music has been added due to a homage in Cape Feare to Gilbert and Sullivan. It has an operetta feel to it.
The script is rife with metaphors about the apocalypse, perhaps caused by terrorism or climate change. When anyone tries to be heroic, they find the task insurmountable. It also tells us that theatre really is at the whim of those with power. As in the Dark Ages, it is virtually wiped out. The plot is almost a metaphor of the history of theatre from the tales of Homer and Aesop, to the Greek classics, to the dark ages and finally to the beginning of the Renaissance when traveling troupes reappeared, often with masks in stylized productions, leading back to Shakespeare and the roots of modern drama. Even using Homer to tell a story alludes to the Greek poet.
Does it always succeed? The answer is subjective, and at times I was more confused than enlightened. However, the young actors are so enthusiastic and talented that for the most part they keep your attention and are able to make some points. The characters are so stylized there is little chance for development of characters. The only two that are developed at all are Bart and Mr. Burns in Act III.
The actors are well worth watching and the plot is thought-provoking.
As stated, the ensemble is super-charged and also includes Thomas Burfeind, Olivia Graham, Sakinah Bastien, Andrew Nelson, Jackie Kim, Jo Hollis, Melissa Skarbek, Al Collins, Jordan Stanford, Ifechukwu Alachebe, Kameron King, Marcus Campbell, Lexi Twilley, Lexi Wakefield, and Ben Sutton. The artistic crew which are present on the stage at times are Yaw Adu, Alyssa Murray, Alec Giannini, Jennifer Lozada, Nelina Kireva, Daniqua Davenport, Jacob Knapo and Brandon Murveit.
Gillett does a fantastic job with all these young, mostly students, actors. Along with the choreography of Sarah Luckadoo, the performers are more than capable, and the dancing and stylized movements go off without a hitch.
B. Benjamin Wei’s costumes, especially in Act III, were inventive and made their own statements, from Marge Simpson’s blue head to the performers who were dressed in glittering black costumes to portray the waves of a storm.
At first the set in Act I seems to be just furniture, but then in Act II it becomes more elaborate as the troupe acts out not only the episode but the commercials that have been past down as well. In Act III as the performances of Cape Feare become more developed, the scenery does as well. Bridget Burge deserves accolades for this remarkable vision. As stated, the costumes become part of the scenery, but there is also a frightening backdrop, a boat and even the start of an electric grid. The scenery nicely underscores the metaphors. Sometimes, it’s hard to tell where the scenery stops and props begin, so a nod to Kelli Jones for props design.
The lighting by Paul Callahan goes from post-apocalyptic to hopeful to terrifying. The lighting helps create mood for the viewer.
The music under the direction of Ian Collins who is also the Music Coordinator for the Dance Department at HCC, is one of the brightest spots in the show. He recreates the “hit tunes” without sounding too slick as the post-apocalyptic troupe would lack the ability to perfectly mirror the original hits. Later in Act III, Collins is able to carry-off this stylized opera with songs the audience will probably not recognize, except for bars of the occasional “Simpson’s” theme song.
This is a show for those who are interested in new developments in theatre. The young students in the audience were supportive, and even though the older members of the audience may have felt a little at sea from time to time, all appeared to enjoy the performance. The actors are well worth watching and the plot is thought-provoking.
The production is only until Sunday, October 13, 2019. If you can get out to Columbia, it is an interesting show and worth seeing.
Running Time: Two hours and 30 minutes with Two Intermissions.
“Mr. Burns A Post-Electric Play” plays until October 13, 2019, at the Smith Theatre, Horowitz Center for Visual and Performing Arts at Howard Community College in Columbia, Maryland. For information go to their website. Tickets are available online.