“Mr. Burns,” a post-electric play, an unusual show at McHenry County College’s Black Box Theatre through March 23, defies easy explanation.
In a nutshell, this off-Broadway dark comedy by Anne Washburn is rather weird, but you just might like it especially if you’re a fan of “The Simpsons” or of the idea of seeing three very different stories in one play.
Act I starts out with a small group of Americans who are among those who survived an apocalyptic event in which all U.S. nuclear power plants have been destroyed and the electric grid has collapsed. Gathered around a campfire in the present day, Matt (Jackson Nielsen), Jenny (Avery Harvey), Maria (Rachel Schneider), Sam (Charlie Sommers) and Colin (Derrick Wilson) are using their recollections of “The Simpsons” as a way to have a shared memory that can distract them from their real-life concerns, including “crazy rumors” about any ongoing danger.
The episode that is particularly memorable for this group is “Cape Feare,” the episode with a Sideshow-Bob-stalks-Bart-Simpson plot that parodies the “Cape Fear” thriller films (one starring Robert Mitchum, one with Robert De Niro). When this quintet is joined by Gibson (Joel Bennett), a wanderer who eventually says an ex-girlfriend was a big “Simpsons” fan and he’s a Gilbert & Sullivan society member, the group’s combined ability to recall the episode details increases exponentially.
Act II jumps ahead seven years to show how this group, now joined by another survivor, Quincy (Gianah Tomczak), has become a kind of theater group, traveling to different cities to perform “Simpsons” episodes, TV commercials and pop music medleys (e.g., “La Vida Loca,” “Fame,” “Eye of the Tiger” and even the theme of “The Muppet Show”). Lines from “Simpsons” episodes have become a hot commodity, theater groups buying the rights to use bits of dialogue from brokers and individuals.
Act III – 75 years later – is a mini-musical with rap, Gilbert & Sullivan and other elements all coming together with other “Simpsons” characters (e.g., Edna [Spencer Alvarez]) and a revised “Cape Feare” plot. In this version, Springfield nuclear plant owner Mr. Burns (played with evil relish by Bennett) is now the villain of the piece, assisted by two “Simpsons” characters who used to hate each other, Itchy (Nielsen) and Scratchy (Sommers).
As these brief descriptions suggest, the three acts vary a lot in tone, each feeling like a different play. For instance, Act II is mostly humorous, with Bennett and Tomczak having a lot of fun as their characters (Gibson and Quincy) purposely overact in their rehearsal of a scene the theater group is preparing. But when a character fears that his forgetting a decision the group made indicates he may have the onset of possible brain damage, and when violence occurs later, this comedy turns dark indeed. The main connector here – the power of storytelling as a civilization evolves – is a thought-provoking one.
Director Jay Geller and Musical Director Katie Meyers have ably shepherded the actors to some very good performances, even when they’re wearing brightly colored cartoon character masks and/or headpieces. (Sideshow Bob’s head and Marge Simpson’s towering blue hairstyle are especially memorable, thanks to costume designers Kathy Bruhnke and Kristi Geggie.)
I also was impressed by the increasingly more substantive set pieces by set designer Thomas Kesling and technical directors Susanne Powell and Kent Wilson.
Don’t bring the little ones to this play; despite the cartoon-based aspects, there’s a lot of adult subject matter (e.g., the safe distance from a nuclear plant that’s collapsed).
In summary, with a script this bizarre, very few theater groups would tackle it. Kudos to Geller and MCC for taking a chance. It’s a show that sticks with you, so – despite my misgivings about the script – I’m giving this production of a post-nuclear-disaster play a “glowing” review.
• Paul Lockwood is a past president of TownSquare Players (TSP) and an occasional community theater actor, appearing in more than 30 plays, musicals, and revues since he and his wife moved to Woodstock in 2001. Recent shows include “42nd Street,” “Once Upon a Mattress,” “On Golden Pond,” “9 to 5: The Musical,” “A Christmas Carol” (2014, 2016) and “Into the Woods.