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It's the end of the world as we d'oh it

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It's the end of the world as we d'oh it (Photo by Darwin Davidson)

Opera House Arts presents 'Mr. Burns, a post-electric play'

STONINGTON How does a story evolve? What is the process of a tale growing from entertaining diversion to ritualized legend? At what point does it transcend its original meaning?

These are the central questions that 'Mr. Burns, a post-electric play' attempts to answer. The play written by Anne Washburn is the final show of the season from Opera House Arts at the Stonington Opera House. Directed by Sarah Gazdowicz, the production runs through Sept. 4.

It's a piece that has been challenging and polarizing audiences since its 2012 premiere at Washington, D.C.'s Wooly Mammoth Theatre Company. Producing Artistic Director Meg Taintor has assembled a talented group of performers and designers in an effort to bring this darkly funny, deeply weird play to life.

An effort that, it should be noted, is a simply tremendous success.

'Mr. Burns' breaks down into three acts. Act One takes place just a few months after some sort of cataclysmic event led to an utter collapse of the electrical grid followed by subsequent meltdowns of the world's nuclear power plants. The breakdown of communication means that no one can truly know the extent of the destruction, though one assumes that is massive in scope.

It also introduces us to a group of survivors huddled around a campfire attempting to remember and recount the plotline to the 'Cape Feare' episode of 'The Simpsons' in an effort to entertain themselves. However, the group consisting of Matt (Matt Hurley), Sam (Jason Martin), Quincy (Zillah Glory), Jenny (Meredith Gosselin), Maria (Melody Bates) and Colleen (Margaret Ann Brady) is tense and edgy, jumping at every noise as if convinced that danger surrounds them.

This is the scene into which Gibson (Bari Robinson) stumbles. After an initial high-intensity standoff, the group warily allows him to stay; he shares what little information he has gleaned about the state of the world during his travels. The news isn't good - civilization has begun breaking down in earnest.

We learn more about that breakdown in the second act, which advances the timeline seven years into the future and shows our ensemble as a traveling theatrical troupe specializing in recreating episodes of 'The Simpsons,' commercials and all. We watch as they rehearse for their next performance and drop occasional references that fill in a few more blanks both about how their previous world ended and how their current one works.

As for the third and final act, wellwe move ahead in time another 75 years and this society's relationship to 'The Simpsons' has evolved accordingly. We'll leave it at that - the less given away, the better.

This notion that stories can be shaped and reshaped so that they might grow to fulfill the purpose for which we need them is a fascinating one. Juxtaposing that sort of headiness with the poppy lightness of an animated sitcom only serves to illustrate the idea that in many ways, the story is ultimately less vital than its reasons for being told.

Creating a piece of art that is somehow both bleak and funny isn't an easy task, but that's what we have here. There are brief, bright rays of laughter throughout moments that come via both zeitgeist-tickling references and earnest interpersonal interactions but the shadows cast by the dark cloud of their post-apocalyptic circumstances never lift.

(One thing needs to be made clear you do NOT need to have a particular depth of knowledge of 'The Simpsons' going into 'Mr. Burns.' It won't hurt, obviously and there will be some bits that resonate a bit more with familiarity but that stuff is ultimately just dressing on the overarching narrative, a device used (remarkably well) in order to better tell the story.)

'Mr. Burns' is very much an ensemble-driven piece and this is a good one. The actors share the spotlight with ease, passing the focus back and forth gently and generously. It's the kind of group effort that still features abundant individual highlights.

Hurley infuses Matt with a gregarious veneer while still portraying the vulnerability inherent to his situation; he also brings a dense charm to his Homer. Martin's steady hand becomes a sinister wildness during a phenomenal third-act turn, while Robinson combines effortless charm and genuine intensity as he glides through his scenes.

Bates marries an engaging energy with moments that could serve as a treatise on portraying barely-contained fear; Brady moves from near catatonia to a gruff bossiness across acts - and makes both work. Gosselin exudes a quiet shine, making subtle choices that create perhaps the most grounded take out of them all. Glory's performance lives up to her name; she proves a magnetic presence onstage, drawing the eye throughout, but particularly in the third act.

On the production side, the design team has done outstanding work. Scenic designer Kat Nakaji has created a variety of looks that manage a sophisticated crudity, a sort of elevated DIY aesthetic that captures the bleak realities of this world. The lighting design courtesy of Ben Lieberson is surprising in its subtle effectiveness; creating light that looks non-electric by way of electric instruments can't be as easy as Lieberson makes it look. Chris Larson's sound design is appropriately jarring and the costumes designed by Erica Desautels are nothing short of magnificent.

Director Gazdowicz and musical director Beth Kyzer have combined to create an absolutely stunning piece of theater. Finding the balance in a show like this one is a delicate thing too bleak or too light and the impact is lost. Gazdowicz threads that needle. And Kyzer creates energetic, powerful musical moments both silly and serious there's a pop song medley that needs to be seen to be believed, for instance.

Put it all together and you have one of the most intellectually challenging, inherently powerful shows that we've seen in quite some time around these parts. Opera House Arts is taking a chance in producing a show such as 'Mr. Burns, a post-electric play' a chance for which they should be rewarded. It is smart and funny and thought-provoking.

In short, this production is *steeples fingers* excellent.

(For tickets or more information, visit the Opera House Arts website at www.operahousearts.org.)

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