A Post-electric Play: ‘Mr. Burns’ at A.C.T. (Review)

Dystopic though it may be, there’s forward energy here, if only out of the struggle for more lines, and the rights to those lines.

L to R: Ryan Williams French, Anna Ishida, Nick Gabriel, Kelsey Venter, and Charity Jones defend their base camp in the foothills of post-apocalyptic Northern California in Anne Washburn’s Mr. Burns, a post-electric play. Photo by Kevin Berne.
In Review

Mr. Burns, a post-electric play

American Conservatory Theatre
Directed by Mark Rucker
Playwright: Anne Washburn
Score by Michael Friedman
act-sf.org
Review by
'Mr. Burns, a post-electric play' review - A.C.T. San Francisco
L to R: Ryan Williams French, Anna Ishida, Nick Gabriel, Kelsey Venter, and Charity Jones defend their base camp in the foothills of post-apocalyptic Northern California in Anne Washburn’s Mr. Burns, a post-electric play.

Houselights don’t gently dim at the outset of Mr. Burns, a post-electric play, A.C.T.’s new offering which opened last night. Instead, a spray of sparks plunges you in total darkness before bringing you to the campfire to join other survivors.

Once here, you mentally stumble, grasping at straws to determine what just happened, what details are relevant. The cast perseverates about fragments of rumors, trying to make sense of this world that was once familiar. Some kind of northern California nuclear disaster rendered the entire country a post-apocalyptic wasteland.

Our charmed circle at the fire  travels packing because hostile strangers are doing the same. However, in the meantime, they exchange radiation poisoning worries while parsing new lines from The Simpsons.

I suspect that many will find Mr. Burns richly rewarding, largely because of nonstop references to “The Simpsons.” Opening night, a kind of appreciatively knowing laugh of recognition rose frequently, suggesting that this struck home. However, if you just aren’t into The Simpsons, or like me, made it this far in life without out ever seeing a single episode, you might want to sit this one out. There’s just too much here that will escape you – as it did me.

With that proviso – and it’s a big one – Mr. Burns is a thoughtful analysis of how social construction is based on shared stories of the past. The interface between pop culture and daily life is an obvious one for theatre, not the least because theatre traverses lives suspended in time and culture.

Mr. Burns follows the trajectory of these survivors, from their humble fire to an abandoned warehouse, most notable for the white light cutting through dirty smoked glass, indirectly illuminating bright graffiti on the walls. Dystopic though it may be, there’s forward energy here, if only for the acquisition of more lines, and the rights to those lines. The notion that one’s look can be crafted through product selection (chablis or water? Water or Diet Coke?) gets rediscovered, as commercials are enthusiastically created, touting products even more meaningless in this new world.

Ryan Williams French prepares to rehearse “Cape Feare” in post-apocalyptic Northern California in Anne Washburn’s Mr. Burns, a post-electric play.
Ryan Williams French prepares to rehearse “Cape Feare” in post-apocalyptic Northern California in Anne Washburn’s ‘Mr. Burns, a post-electric play’.

The notion that this involves a tribe of actors engaged in the recreation of The Simpsons shifts attention to the reception side of the story line as seen through the actors. Walter Benjamin’s ideas about all art needing recipients to carry it forward come to mind, as does his take on the reproducibility of art.

However, for Mr. Burns to work, and for those ideas to have a home, the audience must have some tolerance for the Madge’s blue hair and the general idiocy of The Simpsons. If you swim well in that mix, then Mr. Burns is for you.

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Cy Ashley Webb
Cy spent the ‘80’s as a bench scientist, the tech boom doing intellectual property law, and the first decade of the millennium, aspiring to be the world’s oldest grad student at Stanford where she is interested in political martyrdom. Presently, she enjoys writing for Stark Insider and the SF Examiner, hanging out at Palo Alto Children's Theatre, and participating in various political activities. Democracy is not a spectator sport! Cy is a SFBATCC member.
  • jll

    Just saw this last night and we were very disappointed. The production was good but this is an interesting concept in search of a playwright. It is the worst thing we have seen in a long, long time. Reading the reviews I get a feeling that we are dealing with the Emperor’s New Clothes here. The play is an abject failure.