Mr. Burns is a mash-up for the ages at The Ringwald
FERNDALE, Mich.–If I said that Mr. Burns, a Post-Electric Play, now playing at The Ringwald, is a mash-up of The Simpsons and H.M.S. Pinafore with infusions of Eminem and Daft Punk, and with a nod to Star Trek, would you find it mentally exhausting to ponder?
Me too. But while the play, by Anne Washburn, can tax one’s patience and at times even beg the internal question, “What the hell is happening here?,” and is most certainly 15-20 minutes too long, the totality of the play, and this production, should put a smile on one’s face by the final curtain.
The play opens at a campsite somewhere in New England following an unspecified apocalyptic event. Random survivors have banded. And they begin sharing what they know to entertain one another and pass the time. In this case, it is the “Cape Feare” episode of The Simpsons that is based on the 1991 Martin Scorcese remake of the 1962 film “Cape Fear.” Seven years later (the second act), the survivors have formed a theatre troupe that specializes in performing Simpsons episodes, though what they really perform are composite mashup episodes based on buying lines from episodes from other survivors who remember them as broadcast, or think they do anyway.
Still with me? At this point in the play, any viewer might wonder where the arc of the story is going. What we have is a study about what could happen to a group, rather than a story about characters. What happens when a group of people try to re-create a cultural phenomenon from memory, over the years? Actors playing members of a post Apocalyptic theatre troupe engaged in an elaborate game of telephone. Music Man it aint.
Where the play comes to life, and brings together the reason we have all been gathered together, is the third act–a musical operetta that takes place 75 years later, presumably performed by the descendants of those original survivors, in a fully realized meta-centric mash-up of evolved, darkened Simpson’s characters in a story that borrows from the morphed memories of the “Cape Feare” episode and the memory of one of the original survivors who was a member of a Gilbert & Sullivan society. The set even quickly transforms to hold the bow of a ship as would be done in an amateur production of Pinafore. It’s crazy stuff.
The third act set-piece is striking, with sinister looking Bart and Mr. Smith masks, Marge hair, Simpson’s inspired costumes, dancing, singing and some rapping that might make you think the creator of Hamilton saw Mr. Burns when he was writing his hit show. Costume designer Vince Kelley had ideas to work from the original 2013 production of Mr. Burns in Washington DC, but they were executed wonderfully. I especially like the costume given to Music Director Jeff Bobick who’s outfit, I would swear, was inspired by Ralph Kramden’s “Man from Space” costume from an episode of The Honeymooners.
Mr. Burns is a true ensemble piece. And the experienced actors who bought in to this challenging, wacky story for director Joe Bailey are to be commended for holding it all together: Dave Davies, Dyan Bailey, Kelly Komien, Brandy Joe Plambeck, Melissa Beckwith, Joel Mitchell, Cara Trautman and Peggy Lee as the survivors, and ultimately their descendants in the third-act show.
The set design, by Tommy LeRoy, in the small Ringwald space is inventive. At the start of the play, the players open on the floor, at their campsite, lit only by camp lanterns, while seats for patrons are situated on stage, as well as around the edge of the room. Audience members at the first intermission move their chairs, and the actors take to the stage. There is also a cool darkly comical painted backdrop of The Simpsons SpringField that should be saved for posterity or perhaps turned into “Happy Post Apocalypse” cards.
That the second act of the play is flabby, and the whole play desperately needs cutting by 15 minutes is not at all to say that the play is not good. Mr. Burns has the feel of a play that was created in a workshop by a handful of people who had access to recreational drugs or at least a supply of Tequila. But it also has a fascinating thread linking the three acts. Star Trek fans may relate it to an episode in which a society on a far-away planet, centuries in the future, seems to have adapted and evolved principles from a copy of the U.S. Constitution that found its way into the hands of their ancestors.
Mr. Burns is provocative and fun, if at times challenging to follow. But go see it, hang in there and talk about it afterward. Lastly, it’s pretty heartening to see survivor generations turning to live theatre to advance their cultural touchstones and legacy. It’s hopeful.