By Patrick O’Brien
It takes a bit for the music-theater part to kick into gear at Theatre Wit’s return engagement of Anne Washburn’s Mr. Burns, a post-electric play. Fair enough; Armageddon isn’t much to sing about. In this case, “Armageddon” means the annihilation of the power grid following a string of devastating operational failures at nuclear power plants across America; hence, “post-electric.” Maybe the whole world’s gone dark, too; it’s hard to tell with no electricity. Harder still is knowing who hasn’t fallen to radiation, panic, or worse. Harder still is figuring out The Lesson, or, at least, who’s to blame: the wildly reckless? the overly prudent? the do-nothings? Stuff to scream at, yes. Sing about? So, for the most part, a small band of survivors prefer to huddle around their tiny campfire in pregnant silence. But, even in chaos, people need something to distract themselves from the void. Dare we say, people need entertainment. This band’s definition of entertainment just happens to be piecing together episodes of The Simpsons from memory. Tonight, it’s ‘Cape Feare,’ the one with the rake-stepping and the houseboat and the DUUUUUN DUUUUUN DUUUUUN DUUUUUN. I have to tell you all that — and that’s the entirety of Act One, of three, each as fleet as they are peripatetic — so you can start to imagine Washburn’s long-term game plan: to see how this campfire distraction morphs into a weighty morality opera nearly a century later; to see how yesterday’s pop culture may yet become tomorrow’s Art; to perhaps grasp how, after catastrophe, life can find new normalcy; to see how Lessons Are Learned. (This will get short shrift otherwise: Jeremy Wechsler’s is perfectly invisible.) And once the music does kick in, it’s as hilarious as it’s chilling. (Or vice versa?) Composed by the much-too-late Michael Friedman — tasked with combining the Simpsons’ signature tritone-y theme, a bevy of mid-aughts commercial jingles, and that DUUUUUN DUUUUUN DUUUUUN DUUUUUN into a cohesive whole — the score belies his impish promise. (Eugene Dizon leads the eerie-sounding pit.)
Though stacked with a cast of winners across the board, Mr. Burns just about belongs to Jonah B. Winston and Leslie Ann Sheppard, blessed with voices that come in handy as the tale evolves into opera. (Also blessedly, no one is miked, nor do they need to be.) But then, at the very end, Andrew Jessop steals the show in an act befitting the titular plutocrat. Jessop also embodies the show’s slyest point; Simpsons buffs know that Mr. Burns doesn’t even figure in ‘Cape Feare.’ But that’s just how the Lesson Is Learned. What’s the Lesson? The campfire’s waiting for you to find out.
Mr. Burns, a post-electric play is being presented in an open run at Theater Wit, 1229 N. Belmont Ave. For tickets and information, visit TheaterWit.org or call (773) 975-8150. Photos by Charles Osgood.