I find it obvious to state that Theater Wit’s revival of Anne Washburn’s MR. BURNS, A POST-ELECTRIC PLAY is a prescient choice for the company’s first live production since March 2020. Washburn’s 2012 play takes place in three acts — in the very near future, seven years after that, and 75 years after that — in the wake of a mysterious illness and other disasters that have wiped out a substantial portion of the United States population. The parallels to the current pandemic moment are evident, even though the play was written well before anyone had ever heard of COVID-19. Theater Wit Artistic Director Jeremy Weschler’s staging, however, primarily highlights another theme of MR. BURNS: The idea that we turn to art in times of immense pain and difficulty.
In the play, the characters in all three acts recount SIMPSONS episodes as a way of making sense of a world that no longer makes sense. These memories of THE SIMPSONS become powerful social currency in Washburn’s “post-electric” world. By using fragments of THE SIMPSONS as such a core central reference, Washburn’s play expands out to explore the notion of what art matters most to us when our surroundings no longer look familiar. Does it matter at that point if the art that comforts us is classified as high art or low art? Can low art in fact become high art in these times? And what will become important from current pop culture in the future? What do we carry with us?
Although MR. BURNS has a grim worldview, Weschler’s production highlights the wackiness and the chaos in Washburn’s script. The production overall has a frenetic energy with levity woven throughout — and the ensemble leans into the joyful absurdities in the text. We catch glimpses of post-apocalyptic gloom from the ensemble, but the overall note is more bizarre and wacky than grim. This is in large part thanks to the contributions of Music Director Eugene Dizon. In the play’s second act, Dizon has constructed a stunning medley of pop songs for the ensemble to sing. The medley weaves its way through the decades and again reinforces Washburn’s central theme around how we find meaning in pop culture and what we choose to grant significance. The medley is a real show-stopping moment and one of the highlights especially as it’s clear that this production’s medley was devised with some references since 2012 in mind. Like the pop culture references in the play themselves evolve, so too do the references that inform this production.
The ensemble deftly handles the details of the MR. BURNS reality and convince us that they fully inhabit Washburn’s bizarre world. Jonah D. Winston’s take on Gibson (and other roles throughout the play) makes him a real leader among them. Winston has impeccable comedic timing and uses his impressive vocal skill to make his performance even bigger and brighter. Leslie Ann Sheppard proves a singing match for Winston in her role as Quincy, and her third act turn is a real tour de force (though I won’t reveal many details). The ensemble also includes Daniel Desmarais, Eileen Doan, Andrew Jessop, Tina Muñoz Pandya, Ana Silva, and Will Wilhem. It’s key to note that all eight actors really do function as an ensemble in the truest sense of the world — that feeling of tight-knit community building at the end of the world is core to making MR. BURNS work. The character’s circumstances make clear that they are thrown together by happenstance but must form alliances to survive in the wake of the disaster sweeping the world.
The production elements likewise have an otherworldly feel. Joe Schermoly’s set design evokes a kind of scrappiness as the characters struggle first just for survival, and then in the second act, to create art on the equivalent of a shoestring budget (the set design for the third act is a real treat, but I don’t want to spoil that in this review). Mara Blumenfeld and Mieka Van Der Ploeg’s costume designs are likewise delightful, making inventive use of everyday household items to bring the characters to life.
While this production of MR. BURNS doesn’t feel quite as grave as I imagine other productions might, perhaps it’s those more forward notes of bizarreness and hopefulness that we all need right now. Ultimately, I find it’s not just fitting that MR. BURNS is a play about a post-apocalyptic world, but also one that deeply underscores why art is so important to humanity. Indeed, this production demonstrates that art is what makes us human and empowers us to survive. After such a long time without live theater here in Chicago, I can think of few better ideas to ponder than that.
MR. BURNS, A POST-ELECTRIC PLAY has an open run at Theater Wit, 1229 West Belmont. Tickets are $36-$54. Visit TheaterWit.org.
Photo Credit: Charles Osgood
Originally published on BroadwayWorld.com