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Regional Reviews: Phoenix

Mr. Burns, a post-electric play
Mesa Community College
Review by Gil Benbrook | Season Schedule

Also see Gil's reviews of The Color Purple, 12 Angry Jurors, The Bridges of Madison County, Legally Blonde The Musical

The Cast
Photo by Kiri Malolo
In a year when classic sitcoms from the past such as "Will and Grace" and "Roseanne" have returned to great acclaim and huge ratings, it's clear that an ongoing attraction to familiar, beloved TV characters is something shared by millions of TV fans. Anne Washburn's Mr. Burns, a post-electric play takes our fascination with pop culture and TV shows, and with the classic animated sitcom "The Simpsons" in particular, to new heights as she crafts an odd though entirely intriguing black comedy set in a post-apocalyptic future. While it's a bit long and the third act will clearly have some audience members scratching their heads in either boredom or confusion, or both, Mesa Community College's production features a cast who do well to balance the comedy and drama under Ron May's astute direction.

Mr. Burns begins shortly after an unspecified disaster that seems to have caused the power grid across the nation to fail and nuclear plants to stop, spreading their radioactive waste for miles around and killing, we assume, the majority of the U.S. population. Washburn is a bit vague on the specifics of the time and events that happened before the play begins, which adds to the intrigue of the piece and makes you pay attention.

The first act is a superbly crafted piece of bleakness set amongst nonstop pops of humor. It portrays how the aftermath of the disaster impacts a group of strangers as they sit around a campfire in the woods and try to recall an episode of "The Simpsons" where the series' crazy TV kid show host Side Show Bob attempts to kill Bart Simpson. That episode, "Cape Feare," is a parody of the film Cape Fear and, while you don't need to have seen that movie or know much about the Simpsons, a bit of information about both would help, especially since the events of this episode are repeated throughout the three-act play.

The first act begins comically with the characters in Washburn's play animatedly re-enacting the episode, though not able to clearly remember all of the specifics of the episode. When a stranger enters the camp, the eerie details of how they came together shockingly elevates the act into an excellent story of survivors who are passionately trying to get details of their loved ones yet finding the familiarity of that episode of "The Simpsons" a common bond and a shared experience that helps them bring some sense of normalcy to their barren lives and the uncertainty that living immediately after an apocalypse brings.

The second act is set seven years later and focuses on the same group of strangers and the traveling theatrical troupe they've formed that recreates that same "Simpsons" episode, including commercial breaks and a medley of hit pop songs from the period right before the disaster struck. Washburn again keeps the specific details to a minimum but focuses much on how rival theatrical companies have been formed who reenact other familiar scripts and how the fight to get the rights to classic "Simpsons" episodes, or just specific lines of original dialogue, can turn deadly. Act three is set 75 years later and shows how that same "Simpsons" episode has now become sacred and fleshed out into a fully realized musical opera. It's a theatrical extravaganza that brings in elements of the past, touches upon the nuclear disaster, and also lovingly parodies Gilbert and Sullivan operettas while demonizing the character of Mr. Burns, who not coincidentally was the evil owner of the nuclear power plant in the series. It combines many elements and results in a morality play where the struggle for love over hate and good over bad battle it out.

Washburn combines several interesting ideas and themes into the piece and while there is some uncertainty in the specifics, it's easy to understand what she is getting at: how our need to preserve our culture in a post-apocalyptic world and find a common bond with our fellow survivors could be achieved by holding on to the classic practice of storytelling and turning a well-known episode of an iconic TV series into a shared event with slightly sacred undertones. However, after her spectacular first act, there are several half-baked ideas, others that get too much focus, some that warrant confusion, and an overlong feeling to the third act. Also, the musical score in act three by Michael Friedman, the composer who died last year and is most well-known for his solid score to Bloody, Bloody, Andrew Jackson, consists of rhymed couplets, and is, to put it mildly, tedious and boring. When added together, all of these elements cause there to be some disappointment in the play's end result.

Fortunately, director Ron May has assembled a talented cast who excel in giving depth to the serious dramatic moments of the first two acts and in ensuring that the many humorous segments are comically rich and infused with both an appropriate zaniness and moments of malarkey. However, not all of the cast are good enough singers to have the musical third act hit the heights it should.

The cast is a superb ensemble who do well to balance the script's serious moments with their ability to comically portray characters from the Simpsons TV universe in the play within a play moments of the piece. Seamus McSherry is a standout as the man in the first act who tries to remember the details of the TV episode and relishes reliving them for his fellow survivors. Dolores Mendoza is solid in her delivery of a superb monologue where she tells the story of a man she met who desperately tries to keep the generators of his local nuclear plant fueled. The two also portray Itchy and Scratchy, two villainous characters from "The Simpsons" in the third act with a gleeful sense of abandonment. While Steven May is mostly in the background of the first two acts, his portrayal of Mr. Burns in act three is incredibly rich and rewarding in how it's not just hilarious but also an awesome homage to this classic sitcom villain. Jillian Walker provides a perfect combination of purity and wicked playfulness as Bart in the musical segment. Nathaniel Smith evokes a beautiful image of quiet seriousness as a survivor in the first act who comes upon the campfire and who later has an emotional breakdown when he believes his inability to remember the past is a side effect of nuclear exposure. Taylor Shepard, Cedar Eileen and Natalie Payan round out the cast and all three, like the rest of the cast, effectively play multiple roles with ease.

Jeff Thomson's exceptional scenic design begins small and simple for act one but then explodes into an expansive, over the top, colorful, and comical design that fills the stage for act three. Likewise, the lighting design from Joanna Emmott mirrors the shift from seriousness to drama with dim lighting in the first two acts which instills a foreboding eeriness that is replaced with washes of bright and beautiful color in act three. Ashley Gamba's costumes, which are both character specific and comical send ups of the cartoon characters, and Tu Nguyen's excellent hair and make-up designs superbly mirror the shift in tones in the play, with the use of masks and wigs made of humorous elements a hilarious added touch.

Anne Washburn's Mr. Burns, a post-electric play does well to show the power of, and our obsession with, pop culture along with the importance of mass communication and our need to preserve our culture through various means. While it is a thought-provoking and fascinating play it is also slightly confusing and somewhat disappointing. While I know that classic works of art like Oklahoma! are still being produced 75 years after they first premiered, and in productions that change with the times and incorporate current sensibilities (the production of that musical that just opened at the Utah Shakespeare Festival features same sex lead couples), I'm not quite certain if we'll all be praying to the pulpit of Bart Simpson, or some other imaginary pop culture icon, in the future. Even though I have some issues with the play, MCC's production has a very good cast, solid direction, and creative elements that add to the wittiness of the script while also ensuring the serious moments resonate, which make the first two acts of Mr. Burns incredibly rewarding.

Mr. Burns, a post-electric play, through April 28th, 2018, at the Mesa Community College Southern & Dobson Campus, 1833 W. Southern Avenue, Mesa AZ. Information for upcoming productions can be found at -arts/theatre-film-arts.

Directed by Ron May
Music Director: Liz Spencer
Stage Manager: Kiri Malolo
Scenic Design: Jeff Thomson
Lighting Design: Joanna Emmott
Costume Design: Ashley Gamba
Sound Design: Jeff Parulski
Hair and Make Up Design: Tu Nguyen
Properties Designer: Katie Pompay

Matt, Homer 1, Scratchy, Chief Wiggam: Seamus McSherry
Jenny, Marge, Nelson: Taylor Shepard
Maria, Lisa, Agent 2, Itchy, Principal Skinner: Dolores Mendoza
Sam, Bart 1, Mr. Burns, Apu: Steven May
Cody Colleen, Agent 1, Lisa 2, Groundskeeper, Willy: Cedar Eileen
Gibson, Husband, Homer 2, Sideshow Bob, Troy McClure: Nathaniel Smith
Quincy, Business Woman, Bart 2, Ned Flanders: Jillian Walker
Edna Krabappel: Natalie Payan