Remember back in elementary school when you could get an A for effort? The end result of your effort might have earned a C, or even a D, but the dedication and hard work you put in shone through, and your teacher would recognize that with an appreciative — if relatively meaningless — “A for effort.”
While the Catamounts’ latest, Mr. Burns, a Post-Electric Play, leaves much to be desired, the company shows great ambition by choosing to produce it, and I firmly believe they did the best they could with a fundamentally flawed script and less-than-ample budget. Catamounts gets an unqualified A for effort, but Mr. Burns winds up somewhere decidedly further down the grade scale.
The premise of Mr. Burns is an intriguing one.The first act takes place in the “very near future” after some sort of computer virus caused all the nuclear power plants in America to explode, plunging the country into electricity-less, irradiated chaos. The play opens with a small group of survivors sitting around a campfire entertaining each other with the retelling of a particular Simpsons episode entitled “Cape Feare.”
With creek-cooled beers in their hands, Susannah (Meridith C. Grundei), Sam (Curtiss Johns), Jenny (Laura Lounge), Matt (Jason Maxwell) and Colleen (Joan Bruemmer-Holden) manage to forget their cares for a few moments while quoting Sideshow Bob and struggling to remember all of the plot points from the 1993 episode. When a stranger, Gibson (Mark Collins), arrives, the patter is dropped and guns are drawn. Gibson proves harmless, and the sequence that follows with each member of the group questioning him about lost friends and loved ones he may have encountered on his travels, is one of the most effective and poignant that Mr. Burns has to offer.
The second act moves things forward seven years. Gibson has joined the band of survivors, who, along with Quincy (Mackenzie Paulsen), have formed a sort of theatre troupe that performs Simpsons episodes in exchange for food and essential supplies. Act Two’s theatre-as-survival motif shows the most potential in Mr. Burns, and Paulsen, Collins and Bruemmer-Holden do their best work here as they rehearse a commercial that lovingly recalls the simple pleasures of the pre-disaster times with Paulsen’s character drawing a hot bath and asking her hubby to fetch her a cold Diet Coke.
Act Three jumps ahead 75 years. It is meant as a thoughtful, triumphant climax that explores how the pop culture of one era can become the mythology of the next, but it is by far the most muddled and incoherent part of Mr. Burns. The only things that truly work in Act Three are the masks that turn Catamounts’ cast into Bart, Lisa, Homer, Marge, Itchy, Scratchy and Mr. Burns (if those characters were filtered through Donnie Darko — kudos to Costume Designer Annabel Reader) and Johns’ portrayal of Mr. Burns. Johns has Burns’ voice and mannerisms down to a tee.
Aside from some Fringe Fest offerings once per year, Boulder seldom sees much by way of experimental theatre. For that reason alone, I commend Catamounts for attempting Mr. Burns, which contains many experimental elements. Director Amanda Berg Wilson gets the most out of her game cast, which includes Ben Berg Wilson in a supporting role. Many of the production details, such as the survivors’ tattered clothing and the glowing campfire in the first act, are well done. Unfortunately, Washburn’s script simply can’t be overcome. The play aspires to comment on no less than the nature of mythology itself. With the current literary, cinematic and theatrical worlds dominated by the likes of The Hunger Games, Divergent and The Maze Runner, I tip my hat to playwright Anne Washburn for creating a post-apocalyptic world not intended for the YA (young adult) crowd, but her reach exceeds her grasp, and Mr. Burns, a Post-Electric Play winds up an oddity suitable only for Simpsons uber-completists and die-hard fans of quasi-experimental theatre.
It is telling that the biggest laughs Mr. Burns earns are for lines quoted directly from The Simpsons. The play’s original material, even when delivered solidly by these actors, fares far less well.
And though I have an admittedly small data set to go by, one’s conversance with The Simpsons appears to have little impact on one’s opinion of Mr. Burns. I am a longtime fan and have seen virtually every episode of the show. My companion for Mr. Burns doesn’t care for The Simpsons and has therefore seen very little of it. Yet both of us walked out of the play far from what town founder Jebediah Springfield would have called “embiggened.”