By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca
So. What then?
There’s something indestructible, maybe even sustaining, about the collective act of storytelling. Something viral, in the bloodstream, possibly toxic and radioactive, that can outlast apocalypses. When society shatters completely and we’re not only flung off the grid but grid-less, people will instinctively still be telling stories to each other. But in this “post-electric” universe, what stories will they be? And how will they be reshaped in the telling?
Mr. Burns, A Post-Electric Play, the truly strange allusion-packed play/musical by the American playwright Anne Washburn — currently to be found in a trio of “theatres” created inside the Westbury by You Are Here Theatre and Blarney Productions — runs with that question. And it follows that train of thought through three acts and 75 years in a witty theatrical arc that feels inevitable in Andrew Ritchie’s 10-actor indie production.
In the first act, we’re sitting around a campfire in the woods at the end of civilization (designer: Brianna Kolybaba). I landed one of those camping chairs with the drink-holder in the arm. We’re in the dark along with characters who are hiding out from a nuclear meltdown. Every sound in the “post-electric” world, every crackle and roar and echo, is ominous, a tension captured in Lana Michelle Hughes’ clever sound design.
To distract themselves from the terror of the unknown, and to bond and pass the time, the strangers are warming themselves with bits and pieces of the known. They’re piecing together their shared memories of The Simpsons, specifically the Cape Feare episode from season 2, which riffs on the 1991 Scorsese movie spun from an earlier movie adapted from a book (you see how the declension goes). Anyhow, in that episode, the psycho Sideshow Bob, out of the slammer, is threatening to kill Bart, and ends up singing HMS Pinafore. And because his store of Simpsons memorabilia is the most detailed Matt (Murray Farnell) slips into a sort of leadership role.
The arrival of a latecomer (Patrick Howarth) from the darkness occasions panic, until he joins in this cultural pursuit — and even amplifies it with his Gilbert and Sullivan credentials. Rumours are the currency of knowledge; someone has met someone who met someone whose cousin knows something about the state of the world. Under Ritchie’s direction, the actors have a compelling and alert, natural spontaneity about them, in the cross-weave of fragments, interruptions, silent pauses.
In Act II, seven years later, a troupe of travelling players is doing live enactments of Simpsons episodes, including commercials — selling pop-culture nostalgia to the masses. Ah, capitalism. We surround a little thrust stage on three sides as the performers rehearse, bicker, and bitch about their roles, their props, and their competition. They’re up against rival troupes making inroads in their audience.
Their pop-rap dance production number is riotous, choreographed by Ainsley Hillyard as a scrambling, improvised history of pop-culture dance moves, from Staying Alive to the macarena and Michael Jackson. And Kolybaba’s costumes are a wild 20th century dumpster-diver assortment of make-shift pop-culture add-ons, rubber gloves and a fake fur stole here, a tatty tank top or corset there.
By the third act, 75 years later, pop culture has morphed upwards into mythology, the TV Homer into the Odyssey Homer so to speak. Director Ritchie takes us into a third, more formal theatre space inside the Westbury for a sort of ritualized, masked sung-through operetta cum Greek tragedy cum melodrama, with its own Greek chorus. Homer’s boss Mr. Burns, the owner of the Springfield Nuclear Power Plant, is the arch-villain who’s after Bart now.
Pop culture has been solemnized, and it feels longer, too. With its declamation and extended fight scenes, Act III does go on a bit, in truth. But then, Mr. Burns, A Post-Electric Play is also a satire of the evolution of pop culture into capital-C Culture. And when’s the last time you went to a quickie opera?
There’s a wild go-for-the-gusto theatricality about this bold play. And in this ambitious indie venture Ritchie and his designers really dig in. Post-electric lighting, with its eerie off-the-grid sources, is an imaginative challenge; kudos to Tessa Stamp’s design. Hillyard’s choreography is a collage of 20th century pop-culture riffs and trends, remembered by non-pros. The Act III dance is a mesmerizing mash-up of stylized classical theatre, grandly Broadway gestures, the can-can.…
The half-masks created by Megan Koshka imagine the Simpsons as stylized figures in a Greek tragedy. Kolybaba’s two-tiered set (art literally gets higher in Act III) is a ship nailed together from found wood. Even the live piano accompaniment (musical director/composer Berg at the keyboard) sounds homespun.
Ritchie and his co-producer Barney Productions have assembled an usually large indie cast of 10 top-flight Edmonton actors, led by Farnell as Homer, Chu as Marge, Kristi Hansen as Bart and Paula Humby as Lisa. In this intricate and fascinating play, where pop-culture is framed and re-framed, presented and re-presented, the actors re-create familiar characters the way memory does, in fragments, gestures, inflections.
And meanwhile, this is a play that asks big hard questions. “Making entertainment that is meaningless is hard,” says one actor in Act II. Maybe it shouldn’t be trying. That’s one way of looking at it. On the other hand, maybe meaning is automatic. Is Mr. Burns cautionary? Prophetic? Could you argue that Shakespeare, a first-rate cultural scavenger, was the Matt Groening of his day? At The End, will we be pining for the Diet Cokes of a lost age?
In any case there’s no dismissing of pop culture, according to Washburn’s play. And you’ll be thinking about that long after the curtain (if there’s still a curtain after the apocalypse) comes down. How often does that happen in the theatre?
Funny, and frightening too.
Mr. Burns, A Post-Electric Play
Fringe Theatre Adventures Spotlight Series
Theatre: You Are Here and Blarney Productions
Written by: Anne Washburn (book, lyrics), original score by Michael Friedman
Directed by: Andrew Ritchie
Starring: Nadien Chu, Murray Farnell, Kristi Hansen, Patrick Howarth, Paula Humby, Madelaine Knight, Jenny McKillop, Elena Porter, Rebecca Sadowski, Jake Tkaczyk
Where: Westbury Theatre, ATB Financial Arts Barns, 10330 84 Ave.
Running: through Dec. 7
Tickets: 780-409-1910, fringetheatre.ca