THEATER REVIEW: Mr. Burns @ The Wilma


Attachment-1-15BY TONY CARO Earlier this week, I caught a performance of Mr. Burns, a post-electric play at the Wilma. Written by Anne Washburn and directed by Yury Urnov, Mr. Burns starts off in complete darkness before a few lamps light up to reveal that some never-explained apocalyptic event has destroyed the power grid and left a small group of survivors sheltering in a cargo container. To keep from going insane, the survivors act out the “Cape Feare” episode of The Simpsons where Sideshow Bob is put on trial for attempting to murder Bart. Although the jokes they recount from the episode land better in animated form, the dire post-apocalyptic setting and the interpersonal tensions that arise between the survivors render the Simpsons karaoke surprisingly compelling.

The second act is set seven years into the future. Society is starting to rebuild from the brink of destruction. The same group of survivors is now putting on a theatrical production of the same episode of The Simpsons. This is where the show really gets going. We get to see the cast act out scenes from the episode, like where the Simpson family goes into the Witness Protection Program and Homer is assigned a new name to help protect his identity, “Mr. Thompson,” and despite many agents’ repeated reminders, Homer consistently fails to answer to his new name. Ross Beschler who plays Homer, nails the Simpson paterfamilias’ signature density and lovable oafishness. Much hilarity ensues from the meta tropes of putting on a play within a play.

When I heard that the final act was an operetta, I wasn’t thrilled. Opera is a trigger word that makes me panic and search for the nearest exit, but it turned out to be, by far, my favorite part of the show. The the third act is set 75 years after the apocalypse, and The Simpsons have become like religion and an integral part of the culture that society’s rebuilt. It starts with a gothic horror version of Mr. Burns, played by Jered McLenigan, coming out onto the stage followed by an entourage who put his boots and arms on for him. His clown-left-out-in-the-rain makeup and thousand yard stare are frighteningly reminiscent of Heath Ledger’s chilling portrayal of the Joker in the Dark Knight.

Although the tone of the production is midnight-dark and racks up an impressive body count, it’s consistently hilarious and shot through with delicious meta-ironies. The vocals were consistently loud and clear, and I was impressed that the cast at many times was also playing a variety of instruments, essentially scoring the play they were acting out. The set design is ingeniously engineered, especially the giant rotating pillars in the third act that are subtly engraved with the Simpson family’s faces. The Wilma also recently added a café in its lobby, which I really appreciated. Not only do they serve alcohol, but they offer warm, spiced apple cider that just hits the spot.