Editors' pick

Mr. Burns, A Post-Electric Play

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Editorial Review

REVIEW: ‘Mr. Burns’ hits a Homer
By Peter Marks
Tuesday, June 5, 2012

As inexhaustibly original as the animated series that inspired it, the kookily brilliant “Mr. Burns, a Post-Electric Play” is the sort of once-in-a-blue-moon show that stays stuck in your brain long after it has chilled you to the bone.

It’s a witty, bizarre, thoroughly riveting inquiry into the comforting -- some might say confounding -- durability of pop culture, as well as a rather sweet exploration of storytelling and how our innocence as a species is rekindled every time we retell or revise an old tale. Using a single episode of “The Simpsons,” in which the cartoon parodied the 1991 remake of the movie thriller “Cape Fear,’’ playwright Anne Washburn shows us with astonishing audacity (and terrific music by Michael Friedman) what might happen if technology failed us even as the primal need to make sense of our experiences lived on.

The world premiere brings to a startling climax another vibrant season for Woolly Mammoth Theatre, which began 2011-12 with the striking “A Bright New Boise,” after years in which it unveiled talked-about works such as Mike ­Daisey’s “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs” -- returning this summer -- and Bruce Norris’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “Clybourne Park.” “Mr. Burns,” smashingly directed by Steven Cosson, artistic director of New York’s the Civilians, keeps Woolly on a trajectory as one of the most influential outposts for the best new American plays.

Surely other theater companies will clamor for “Mr. Burnses” of their own -- it’s the sort of smart satire that cannot be presented in any medium better than the stage. It’s by no means a lampoon of “The Simpsons” -- if anything, it holds up the program as something akin to the “Oedipus” or “Canterbury Tales” of our time. The cartoon is, rather, a vehicle for an entertaining fantasia on how the themes in art of one age might be transmuted by time and tragedy into poignant mythology in another.

Aided by a talent-stuffed cast of seven -- Steve Rosen, Kimberly Gilbert, Chris Genebach, Erika Rose, James Sugg, Jenna Sokolowski and Amy McWilliams -- Washburn and Cosson propel us forward nearly a century, as civilization suffers near-extinction and “The Simpsons” lives on. An unexplained cataclysm has eradicated electrical power and caused the control rods in nuclear facilities to super-heat and plants to explode, killing hundreds of millions.

The opening scene, set in a campsite in which survivors hunker down, is a sometimes harrowing depiction of the struggle to ascertain what’s happened. After a stranger, played by Genebach, wanders into camp, the survivors ritually pull out address books to compare notes with him on the names of others who might be alive.

For entertainment, though, they attempt to conjure “The Simpsons,” and it’s the “Cape Fear” episode that gets them going, as if they were half-stoned college sophomores reenacting choice scenes from “Reefer Madness.”

The conceit that electronic devices of all kinds are permanently kaput allows for storytelling to revert to an oral tradition. The hitch is that human memory is short, and as the decades pass in “Mr. Burns,” the accuracy of the account of the “Cape Feare” episode fades. Irony’s half-life proves even shorter; soon, no one recalls that the program was a joke. Ragtag acting troupes of the future appropriate the tale, adding their amusingly confused ideas of what commercials might have been like, complete with utterly superfluous snippets of songs by Ricky Martin and Lady Gaga.

The evening culminates in a wild pop opera, 75 years in the future, that absurdly conflates elements of “The Simpsons,” “Cape Fear” and the long-ago nuclear holocaust. (How ecstatically conjecture and supposition take flight without electronic records!) The story comes to assume religious significance: Springfield, Marge and Homer’s home town, is enshrined as a pre-disaster paradise and, as the owner of the town’s nuclear plant, Mr. Burns -- deftly caricatured by Sugg -- is portrayed as a bona fide devil. In “Mr. Burns’s” surreal game of telephone, “The Simpsons” has turned into Genesis.

Washburn and Cosson leave you a little dazed with their blunt imaginative force: “Mr. Burns” is penetrating but cold, and I suspect you’ll be astounded by it more than moved. Because its reference points are patterned so strongly on the cartoon series, too, the piece might appeal most intensely to those who’ve grown up with Bart and Lisa -- and theatergoers who most enjoy seeing things onstage that don’t duplicate what they’ve seen before.

As for “Cape Fear”: I wonder whether there might be a need for the characters in Act 1 to recount a bit more about the film as an aid for anyone unacquainted with it.

Cosson’s guidance of his cast would be hard to improve upon. Beginning with the superb Rosen, Gilbert, Rose and Genebach, each actor approaches the material with a rewarding sense of belief in “Mr. Burns’s” twisting reality, whether they’re portraying traumatized survivors or their descendants, or embodying “Simpsons” characters in ever more distorted get-ups. Something delightful is sparked by Rosen, for example, when he assumes in deadpan fashion the role of Homer, who can’t get it through his thick skull that as he enters a witness protection program, he must answer to a new name. With the help of the slightly sinister half-masks by costume designer Frank Labovitz, Rose, meanwhile, manages to disappear into Bart’s boyish countenance for a final, bloody showdown with Mr. Burns.

Somehow, too, Misha Kachman’s sets, skillfully lighted by designer Colin K. Bills, heightens the tension by straddling the real and cartoon worlds. His curtain and set for the climactic “Cape Fear”-emulating encounter on the river evoke the menace in Martin Scorsese’s film and the whimsy of Matt Groening’s animated sendups.

Washburn has a gift for alternative realities. She came up with an entire language and culture for her play “The Internationalists,” which set an American adrift in cultural chaos. Here, she has us traveling once again into an alien world that’s all too familiar. Touching our sensitive, doomsday nerve, and dreaming up new roles for some of our most beloved characters, she makes the post-electric electrifying.

PREVIEW: Please illuminate us, Mr. Bills
By Celia Wren
Sunday, May 27, 2012

How do you light the apocalypse?

That’s a question that D.C.-based lighting designer Colin K. Bills has pondered repeatedly of late. This in-demand artist, who masterminds lighting for about 18 shows a year, has handled a typically eclectic roster this season: the new play “Lungs” at Studio Theatre, the musical “Hairspray” at Signature Theatre, Synetic Theater’s silent-Shakespeare riff “The Taming of the Shrew,” and more.

But the three-time Helen Hayes Award winner has a long-standing relationship with Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, which named him to its core artist group last fall. And since the concept of apocalypse has been the unifying theme of Woolly’s 2011-12 season, Bills has been serving up images of doomsday and civilization in crisis. He concocted the eerie dawn of the Rapture for “A Bright New Boise” in October, for instance. Now he is crafting the aftermath of Armageddon for “Mr. Burns, a Post-Electric Play,” a world premiere by Anne Washburn (see related story), running May 28-July 1.

As the subtitle suggests, “Mr. Burns” imagines life after the collapse of the grid. Working with director Steven Cosson and set designer Misha Kachman, Bills will conjure up milieus bathed with firelight, celestial light and old-fashioned radiance sources like candles. This look will be a stage illusion: In actuality, “Mr. Burns” will rely on modern lighting technology and Pepco power lines. But the illusion will not be merely a good-looking extra: It will figure critically in the production’s storytelling and emotional rhythms.

That’s the theory, at any rate. Lighting can be “about an emotional reaction to things and not necessarily just about the realism of things,” Bills observed last month at Arena Stage, where his challenge was, if not apocalypse proper, at least a minor environmental emergency. The bespectacled 36-year-old was engaged in technical rehearsals for “Begotten: O’Neill and the Harbor of Masks,” a production that involved a hefty dose of fog; and on the previous day the fog -- orchestrated via the lighting control board -- had set off Arena’s fire alarms.

Bent on rectifying the situation, Bills ensconced himself calmly behind two computer screens in the Kogod Cradle seating area and launched into an afternoon of fog- and lighting-cue fine-tuning, a process that involved monitoring the screens and the stage while muttering requests like “Move cue 20 to cue 19.5. Great. And then, 7 through 9 at zero” over a headset. His lighting board programmer, on the other end of the headset, was making revisions based on the numbers, which referred to cues and variables like brightness levels and specific lighting instruments.

Bills gravitated toward this kind of esoterica early in his career. Raised in the Chicago suburb of Glenview, he enrolled at Dartmouth with vague ideas of studying engineering. But after an acquaintance asked for help hanging lights for a campus production, Bills started immersing himself in drama. Upon graduating with a theater degree and a linguistics minor, he landed a lighting internship at Baltimore’s Centerstage, where he met another intern, Rachel Grossman, who became his wife.

The two subsequently settled in the D.C. area, where Bills began assisting lighting designers around town. (Grossman is now managing director at Washington Improv Theater, as well as a ringleader of the ensemble Dog & Pony DC.)

Eventually he racked up the expertise to design shows himself. His early collaborations with Synetic helped him develop a signature style involving sharply defined areas of light in bold tones and textures. He became a fan of impressionistically colored shadows (“It’s not always appropriate, but I think you get a richer image,” he says, casually citing the precedent of Monet) and of the volatility of green light (“Depending on how it’s reacting to other things, it can be warm or cold. That’s what I love about it”).

Along the way, he has become an old hand at lighting budgets, which he says may go as high as $10,000 for a splashy local musical with a longish run. (The budget line might cover expenses such as gels, which give lights colors; gobos, patterns placed in front of lights to shape the beams; and the rental of any lighting instruments a theater doesn’t own.)

But Bills tries not to let details hide the big picture. He makes a point of attending the earliest planning meetings for any project he signs on to, for instance. Even when the production in question is a revival of an old play, he says, “there’s a legitimately new world that we’re trying to create. And I want to be in on that.”

Directors who have worked with him admire this holistic approach, as well as his flair for giving light an emotional and narrative valence.

“He’s a big thinker,” notes Woolly Artistic Director Howard Shalwitz.

“He understands that lighting is a character in these productions,” says Signature Artistic Director Eric Schaeffer, who staged “Hairspray.” “In a musical, the light has got to match the music, as well as the action,” Schaeffer observes. “In a play, it’s much more subtle. He can do both -- and that’s not always the case.”

John Vreeke, who directed “Bright New Boise,” says, “With Colin, it’s not just the visual aspect of how you illuminate the story and make it clear and cogent and powerful -- it’s also about how the light moves us from place to place” within a play’s gamut of revelations.

With the revelations of “Begotten” wrapped up (fog problem, solved!), Bills has been completing his design for “Mr. Burns,” thinking about matters like a scene in which characters sit around a nighttime bonfire. Visible bonfire flames might undermine the story’s urgency, because “the safe ways to do fire onstage tend to look -- and especially smell -- really fake,” he says.

By the week before tech rehearsals started, he had a plan to conceal small lights with parabolic reflectors inside a barrel suggestive of a makeshift hearth. The beams of these “birdie” lights, shining out of the barrel, will suggest dying embers, but they won’t brighten the whole tableau: Even with a separate moonlight-like glow pouring down from upstage, shadows will still gather on the outskirts of the scene, communicating mystery and menace.

The sequence will be “both warm and cold, cozy and dangerous,” Bills predicts. Thomas Edison himself could hardly have asked for more.