Ask No Questions
With a heightened, post-modern, meta-theatricality, Anne Washburn’s polarizing play “Mr. Burns, A Post-Electric Play” was destined to become the darling of the college and community circuits right across the U.S. Running the theatrical gamut from hyper-realism to near pantomime, with a musical theatre song and dance act to finish, “Mr. Burns, A Post-Electric Play” has something for everyone. Perfect for showcasing senior year students in one neat package. So it should probably come as no surprise that Rough Magic’s two year, artist development, Seeds programme elected to showcase its aspiring artists with “Mr. Burns, A Post-Electric Play,” a post-apocalyptic, dark comedy dissecting all things cultural, theatrical, and The Simpsons. Yet at three hours it’s both tantalizing and torturous at times, asking a lot of its audiences in places, and of its cast. And if its ambitious cast sometimes struggle with some of the American cultural subtleties contained therein, (Washburn also adapted “Mr. Burns, A Post-Electric Play” into a version specifically aimed at a European audience), they still deliver a lot of belly laughs and some wonderful theatrical moments.
Set in a post-apocalyptic America, it seems, alongside cockroaches, the only other things to survive a nuclear holocaust are guns, copyright laws, cans of diet coke, a handful of humans, and the vagaries, vanities, and questionable victories of theatre. For in a de-stabilized America theatre’s sole function is to entertain, not to educate, nor to enlighten. And certainly not to ask questions. With The Simpsons the new Shakespeare, and Homer the new Homer, The Simpsons’ canon, misremembered over the decades, offers up its Cape Fear episode for theatrical and cultural interpretation as a way to reestablish the status quo. What begins as story, or memory, shared around the communal fire, travels through the theatrical stages of staging and motivation. But as this is America, life has got to have a big musical theatre, song and dance finish. With saccharine sweet songs, and a happy ending, so we can all rest better in our beds tonight. You want meaning, go look somewhere else. For meaningless entertainment, especially when dressed up as culturally relevant, is always the best game in town.
Divided neatly into three acts, with two intermissions, the first act of “Mr. Burns, A Post-Electric Play” sees its cast primarily sitting around talking, attempting to recount the Cape Fear Simpsons episode in detail, along with some long drawn out tale about a nuclear reactor, and an equally drawn out litany of names. The theatrical hyperrealism hits you in waves in this least satisfying of the three acts. Act two sees the cast, seven years later, move from story telling to theatre making. Motivations and movements might still need to be ironed out even after the apocalypse, but a musical medley gets the cast on their feet and out of their conversations in one of the shows most delightfully engaging and hilarious sequences. Act three, several decades into the future, sees theatre evolved, or devolved, into a ritualized, formulaic, musical big finish. All easy heroes and villains, in a Simpsons musical one step away from pantomime.
Love it or hate it, Washburn’s three-act epic has imaginative ideas coming hard and fast, offering some thoughtful interrogations of society and theatre’s role within that. Sometimes feeling like an end of term academic paper, its ideas whack you over the head every chance they get. Yet there’s usually enough laughter to offset this. Crossing a plethora of theatrical divides, “Mr. Burns, A Post-Electric Play” often presents its cast with a range of performative challenges, feeling like an episode of The Voice or X-Factor in places. Creating a situation equivalent to one where someone’s talented rendition of Motorhead’s Ace of Spades might well raise the hairs on the back of your neck, yet the same singer tackling Celine Dion’s My Heart Will Go On the following episode proves less successful. Granted, the modern performer is required to show versatility, yet a Jack-of-all-trades mentality can often come at a cost.
Director, Ronan Phelan, along with cast members Peter Corboy, Ross Gaynor, Ciara Ivie, Nessa Matthews, Karen McCartney, Conor O'Riordan, Cate Russell and Sophie Jo Wasson all succeed incredibly well at various times, even if the whole isn’t completely a triumph. Set and costume design by Molly O’Cathain, along with a clever lighting design by Dara Hoban, and compositions and sound design by Sinéad Diskin, show great finesse in places. Musicians Seamus Ryan and Lee Coffey, playing live on the night, round out a promising young cast, with the much vaunted Coffey’s original play, “Shadows to Light,” to receive a rehearsed reading as part of the Seeds programme on December 8th and 9th, also at The Project Arts Centre.
Whether reviled or revered, “Mr. Burns, A Post-Electric Play” offers a rich interrogation of theatre and culture wrapped up in lots of laughs, and lots of far less interesting moments. At times, it aptly echoes Homer’s sentiment, “I've seen plays that were more exciting than this. Honest to God…plays!” At others it is laugh out loud hilarious. “Mr. Burns, A Post-Electric Play” sees Rough Magic Seeds team acquit themselves well in what is a challenging and demanding production. One that delivers more than its fair share of big laughs while asking some fairly big questions on culture and theatre.
“Mr. Burns, A Post-Electric Play” by Anne Washburn, presented by Rough Magic as part of their Seeds Programme, runs at The Project Arts Centre until December 9th
For more information on “Mr. Burns, A Post-Electric Play” or rehearsed readings of Lee Coffey’s “Shadows to Light,” visit Project Arts Centre or Rough Magic