12 Peers’ production of Mr. Burns reminds me how theatre is actually a sickness: an uncontrollable urge for group chemistry to elucidate collaboration, values and to define social archetypes. It’s a phenomenon that spans cultures for a reason; a desperate need to create Culture and expose the excitement of live spectacle, meaning, and catharsis. Lessons come from theatre, so we see it evolve within this play from a distinct form of mythology, a past that is our present. The shared experience is a communal and biological drug, such that trauma can be translated into release.
As this play begins, we are given traumatized strangers. They all have stories, survivors of a looming, severe apocalypse. Their pasts are reflected in the subtle hints and subtext; big reveals between the distractions of dialogue, really. A great power this text imbues is its subtext. It’s a treat actually, the guessing game, trying to figure out the lines-between of a character like Gayle Pazerski’s Jenny. A great deal of the first act is just straight-up talking about a Simpsons episode. But it’s so clearly a shiny, little cat toy. Nostalgia is a bit of a painkiller, lightly treating symptoms. You’re seeing this a bit in other actors, like Cassidy Adkins’ Maria or Joe York’s Matt. But with Pazerski, there’s something about the other narrative that’s not revealed. There are certain moments of stock, silent horror that comes down to looks.
The brilliance of this play is that it’s aggressively esoteric. It won’t have the same effect 20 years from now when seasons 1-10 of the Simpsons don’t hit home to our millennial sensibilities, as they’re wont to do now. When you are introduced to these characters, you can easily place yourself within them trying desperately to grapple the latent utopian feel when television characters’ conflicts were the brunt of thought and conversation. It’s what people talk about these days, as if these fictional characters were their actual friends.
I strongly encourage people to check out 12 Peers’ Facebook page and look at the profiles and questionnaires of each actor in the show. These actors have become aware of their characters’ pasts. It reminds me of the research done with Uta Hagen’s process, where the character-on-stage is more fully realized by the actor making choices about said character’s necessary past. There is a healthy amount of investigation that these actors have compiled for themselves, and the brilliance of Mr Burns is it only reveals so much. The audience is allowed to answer for themselves what holocaust these players have gone through.
Another stand-out is Everett Lowe’s Gibson. He powerfully exacts an exhausted person with a booming strength being tested to its limits. We get glimpses of where he’s been. But not so much that we know him. He tethers the line well between imposing and comforting, setting up the dichotomy that is between architects of a new civilization coming from those who had survived the apocalypse. Kudos to the actor for pulling off this duality.
The acts are divided between “Now”, “7 Years Later” and “75 Years Later”. It’s the evolution of what the accumulated memories of a specific Simpsons episode come to mean culturally.
What Mr Burns epitomizes so well is the burn of claustrophobia; cabin fever. It plays with the apocalyptic fears we obsess with as a culture and puts them into play. Post-electric: how do we mythologize?
That Third Act, the “75 Years Later”; that’s got to be earned. How do you even get a remote idea of what life might be like, “post-electric”, when it comes to 75 years later?
Probably the most interesting arc of the show belongs to Brittany Tague, who also shows her talent as the show’s choreographer. Her character Colleen goes from shell-shocked stranger to company manager within a new economy built on compiling culture. To allow this frame to materialize in what becomes a Greek tragedy/opera, built upon the vestiges of what elements from the 90’s can be remembered, allows a very grave part of the brain to be tickled. What we illusorily imagine to be warm satire can be easily contrived as hollow or obsolete relics. Think of the Parthenon’s white columns having the same white shade as a mausoleum. It’s as if the culture it was created for is dead. That’s exactly what it is: dead. And yet we still have the relic.
What’s created 75 years later, is a testament to human need; using “The Simpsons” as a crude vehicle to get there. I liked this production. I would have liked it more with no stage lights and only “post-electric” scenic design; but that’s a nit-picky request, I know. Still, I believe that the 3rd Act is earned. It’s well-choreographed, well-sung and well-performed. It left me with the sticky-sweet feel of a deep, non-superficial future that has its own sense of the past. Rather than Futurama, it’s built into the new tribalism with a new set of Gods: an elegant regression. I thought the drama of it was nauseous in the best way possible, turning my childish nostalgia into the effective tragedy of memory. Vince Ventura did a great job as director and the singing was surprising for the limiting capabilities of the University of Pittsburgh’s black box. Still, a stand out performance by Sara Ashley Fisher as Bart Simpson; as well as the whole ensemble. The surprise of the sharp choreography shows a serious texture and is well-rehearsed. It shows the intimacy this cast must have had with one another, which is important to the whole Das Boot of the entire concept.
This play plays on two very important features of today’s culture: the need for great comedy and the fear of the end. It’s perfect in that regard, and this is a very decent, swelling performance. Cromulent, as it needs to be.
Mr. Burns, a Post-Electric Play runs at the Studio Theatre at the University of Pittsburgh through August 20. For tickets and more information, click here.