Review: MR. BURNS

by Lynn on May 18, 2015

in The Passionate Playgoer

At the Historic Aztec Theatre 1035 Gerrard St. E., Toronto, Ont.

Written by Anne Washburn
Score by Michael Friedman
Lyrics by Anne Washburn
Co-directed by Simon Bloom and Mitchell Cushman
Set by Ken Mackenzie
Costumes by Lindsay Junkin
Lighting design by Nick Blais
Sound by Samuel Sholdice
Puppet design by Marcus Jamin
Starring: Damien Atkins
Rielle Braid
Ishai Buchbinder
Katherine Cullen
Colin Doyle
Sébastien Heins
Amy Keating
Tracy Michaelidis

A production done without electricity, that references The Simpsons, that is often electrifying and always intriguing and provocative because of its dazzling imagination.

Mr. Burns is an epic three act play with songs (who ever heard of such a thing in this day and age of the tweet and quick retort?) that is huge in scope as is this eye-popping production created by Outside the March, perhaps Toronto’s most inventive, daring theatre company working today.

The Story. There has been a nuclear disaster. Mr. Burns owns the reactor that blew up. Imagine it—a post-apocalyptic world without electricity. A group of survivors light their way with flashlights scavenging for food. They pass the time reliving better times, namely retelling each other the minutiae of the dialogue and details of an episode of The Simpsons, namely The Cape Fear episode.. The joy of the character in the telling is palpable until reality appears in the form of a stranger, another survivor. The group is desperate to know about loved ones who lived far way might have survived. The stranger would know because he has a book of names, ages, descriptions of the people, where they came from and what they did for a living.

Act II is seven years later when those survivors are now re-creating those Simpson’s episodes as a living, as a tv/performance group. They are not alone in this endeavour, so competition and money muddies the waters.

Act III is seventy-five years later with references in song to two towers being destroyed and shafts of light taking their place. The tone becomes chilling as a real evil appears—Mr. Burns. He says he will always be there among them, wrecking havoc. Quite a sobering thought.

The Production. The first scene is an effervescent telling of The Cape Fear episode of The Simpsons between Matt and Jenny, devotees of the show. Colin Doyle plays an exuberant Matt as the details of the episode pop out of him like popcorn sprayed in the air. As Jenny, Tracy Michailidis is excited but in a calmer way than Doyle. You get the sense that this retelling is rare joy in their lives as they try and survive.

And for those of us who never watched The Simpsons (because some of us were at the theatre), and wouldn’t know The Cape Fear episode from the Caped Crusader, Anne Washburn impishly takes care of that problem by putting a character in that scene who hasn’t watched the show either. Maria (Katherine Cullen) watches quietly while the other two riff off each other.

Then a stranger named Quincy (Damien Atkins) arrives and the tone and exuberance instantly changes to chilling reality, fear, wariness and trepidation. It’s clear that the previous exuberance over the tv show is how these people kept sane and hopeful. At this point, the survivors reveal their desperation to hear about lost loved ones; to know if they survived and if Quincy knows about them. Damien Atkins is as concerned and anxious to tell them good news as they are to hear it. The anxiety ramps up. Danger is everywhere

Co-directors Simon Bloom and Mitchell Cushman, their creative team and their hugely talented cast pull this off with pure imaginative dazzle. They are producing this piece of theatre without electricity. The stage is illuminated with flashlights and the audience’s imagination. Set designer Ken Mackenzie has fashioned a set that looks like it’s a lost and found of rag-tag props with a makeshift curtain and other stuff that creates the sense that these characters create on the fly. At times the creativity is breathtaking. The use of puppets (kudos to creator Marcus Jamin) alone is stunning. Two giant hands with LOVE on the knuckles of one and HATE on the knuckles of the other, wave above our heads; the digits flutter ominously. There are scenes of poignant emotion when a community is created and embraced. It’s certainly made me curious about this phenomenon known as The Simpsons. D’oh.

Comment. Do you need to know about The Simpsons to get the references? No, Anne Washburn is too smart a playwright to keep part of her audience in the dark. The references are subtly explained. Those who know the difference between ‘d’oh’ and ‘duh’ will ‘get it’ in a different way. There is the challenge to pay attention to something with which we aren’t familiar (the telling of the episode). It’s too easy to shut off over things not familiar. Don’t. Stay the course. All will be revealed if you are receptive to it.

Please see this stunning piece of theatre that is about more than iconic TV show.

Produced by Outside the March in association with Starvox Entertainment and Crow’s Theatre.

Run: May 13 to June 7, 2015
Cast: 8; 4 men, 4 women
Running Time: 2 hours 45 minutes. Approx.


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