Regional Reviews: Philadelphia
Misha Kachman's evocative set design is bolstered by Thom Weaver's excellent lighting (a special challenge in a world where all the electrical power has gone out). Costume designs by Megan Healey move the story through three entirely distinct looks. The ensemble, composed of four HotHouse Company members and three Philadelphia favorites, is a thrill to watch.
As the title suggests, Mr. Burns is inspired by Matt Groening's iconic animated series "The Simpsons." The television show serves as a cultural touchstone for the characters in the play. The particular episode that ties the acts together is 1993's "Cape Feare," based loosely on the 1962 movie Cape Fear.
There are three stylistically distinct acts with two intermissions. Act one takes place a few months after an unspecified disaster brings down America's power grid. A small group of people have gathered inside a shipping container. To keep their spirits up they recall their favorite lines and sequences from the "Cape Feare" episode. When a stranger appears, the discussion turns toward missing loved ones and what happens when spent nuclear fuel cooling pools lose power. Lindsay Smiling and Ross Beschler give especially powerful performances.
Act two takes place seven years later. People are coping well enough to desire entertainment for now, but there are signs that things might be deteriorating. Our original group, plus one newcomer, have formed an acting troupe. Together they travel and perform old "Simpsons" episodes complete with commercials. A commercial featuring Smiling and Mary Tuomanen is well done, but the real highlight of the act is the ensemble's passionate discussion about their repertoire. Unfortunately, a play within a play scene from the "Cape Feare" episode is over stylized and the pop music medley is gloomy where is should be campy.
Act three is set 75 years further into the future. There is no explicit discussion of what the world has become; we can only infer from the performance on stage. That performance is a barely recognizable rendition of "Cape Feare" in the style of a Greek tragedy, but with a new operatic score by local composer Michael Kiley. At first the audience seems a bit confused. Is the depiction of Montgomery Burns as a post-apocalyptic Gritty-meets-Jean-Valjean with giant puppet hands supposed to be funny? But after the first twenty minutes it is clear that the tone here is dead serious. The ensemble sing and play their own instruments, with Tuomanen, Sarah Gliko. and Jered McLenigan as standouts.
Grim, surreal, and eventually grotesque, this is not the sort of humor that will please everyone. But if you like your laughs with a side of desperation, dystopian nostalgia, and a few operatic vocals, this is theater worth seeing.
Mr. Burns, a post-electric play runs through November 11, 2018, at The Wilma Theater, 265 S. Broad St., Philadelphia PA. Tickets are available at wilmatheater.org, by calling 215-546-7824, or by coming to the theater.