The HIPP's production of Mr. Burns - a Post-Electric Play, written by Anne Washburn, is one of the most outstanding plays put to stage I have ever seen at the Hippodrome. In the spirit of the challenging, psychological, absurdist, and experimental, Alice, Burns ranks at the HIPP's top tier of true artistry and vision. This is not some cheap Simpson's knockoff. It is intellectual, poetic, colorful, musical, and it's damn near Dionysian. Lauren Caldwell's direction has never been finer. The cast is not only strong, they are absolutely committed to the vision of this alternate universe. From the near future, to seven years later, to seventy-five years later when Simpsons popular references have become maudlin operatic religious Greek theatre. The last half of the show becomes a gothic ceremony of epic proportions. The writing, the singing, the word-play, the dialogue, the puzzle of cultural identity, the intelligence--this play is a stunner! And because it is so challenging and does not pander to the base, I can only make the Darwinian conclusion that anyone who is not blown away by this work on some level should not be involved in continuing the species.
We are never in a cartoon.
Bob Robbins (lighting design) and the Set Designer (Mihai Ciupe), either by design or unintentionally (I like the mystery of whether this is intentional or a happy accident), have created some kind of symbiotic collaboration with an unlisted actor in the cast, the giant painted tapestry by Kenneth Brown which hangs as both background and curtain throughout our journey through time. From one moment to the next, certain lighting brings out certain colors in the tapestry from which structures, organic fauna, faces, and fantastical imagery occur. Something like being on acid, the background is alive and subject to wild interpretation. Our cast huddles over a fire burning in a can. Stories are being told. Reminisces of The Simpsons, especially the episode in which Sideshow Bob and Mr. Burns look forward to the murder of one Bart Simpson--all this arched over by the essence of Scorsese's movie, Cape Fear (a complex redux of J. Lee Thompson's Cape Fear). Keep in mind, actors in the original from 1962 appear in Scorsese's 1991 version as other characters. Do you see how this is working? So it is only natural that actors who were characters in 1962 became other characters in 1991, who became popular culture references in The Simpsons, who then became popular culture references in Mr. Burns - a Post-Electric Play. We metamorphasize. (That's a Shakespeare word.)
One of Lauren Caldwell's signature touches is having her cast orchestrate the changing of sets in half-light, often to well-chosen music. As the HIPP does not employ a front curtain around their thrust stage, we are often privileged to watch some kind of choreographed secret as set pieces are moved around and brought on and off stage by characters in the play. When the minimal fireplace set leaves the stage bare during Mr. Burns, it was like watching some kind of remarkable magic trick. It was somehow emotionally affecting and like a fever dream, we aren't sure if we've truly slipped on the fabric of time.
I simply refuse to go into the plot as reviewers often do, because nothing I say can come close to the actualized experience of allowing this show to take you on its journey. I can only tell you it is post-apocalyptic, the face of comedy turns to tragedy on a dime, it is as relevant to our current times as could possibly be imagined, and Mr. Burns might be the Devil--God's highest of all angels fallen. Again, I have to make note of Bob Robbins' lighting work; the shadows that befall the back walls land like archetypal cave paintings. Shadow is another show going on simultaneous to this one, and what is a shadow but a memory cast at the speed of light? The shadows 'embiggen' the play. (That's a Simpson's word.)
And is there color! By the time we are suddenly thrust into what seems a ritualistic religious opera scored by Paganini and Looney Tunes, as Lisa Simpson said in Selma's Choice, "I can see the music." A freakin' cruise ship sails through the tapestry and onto the stage, and there all forces collide as a crucible to the survival of the species!
The cast, all in multiple roles and later, grotesque Simpsons costume masks, are uniformly strong. They give each character memorable flavors and textures. Bryan Mercer as Gibson and, yes, Scratchy, is a revelation. He is a three-dimensional fully realized...I don't know how to say it except to say I can't be sure there was an actor acting. Mercer somehow evokes the best little nuances you might see in a Brando or Day Lewis. He summons up Klaus Kinsky (the good parts) and Baryshnikov. This actor delivers a motivated line and just because his nose itches, he'll scratch it. That's not a 'Scratchy' pun. This and other little honest ticks and moments which organically spring from this actor set him in a league of his own. It serves the story since his arrival to the camp is the inciting incident and he rightly stands out amongst the survivors like a three-eyed fish. The flip-side to his coin is the ever-awesome Matthew Lindsay when he becomes Mr. Burns. He plays both comic and honestly terrifying with the greatest of ease. And resolutely strong performances from Stephanie Lynge (Jenny/Marge), Charlie Mitchell (Sam/Homer), Logan Wolfe (Colleen/Scratchy), Katrina Asmar (Quincy/Nedra), and Marissa Williams (Lisa). I must also point out that there comes a point in the finale where I could tell no distinct difference between Bart Simpson of the play (Marissa Toogood, also playing Susannah) and the actual Bart Simpson of the cartoon.
Costume Design by Jessica Nilacala Kreutzer evokes requisite bleakness for the survivors and then eye-popping candy-dazzle when the Simpsons ship out. The sound design (Amanda Yanes) is sublime, with environmental textures that seem to rise during the silent moments between actors to remind us we are in uncharted wilderness. Then, the marriage of the music to the fantastic singing of the cast is pitch perfect. Bryan Mercer was the musical director as well as actor; see? Told you this guy is off the chain! Properties by Angela Zella, Choreography by Stephanie Lynge (also multitasking as actor), Production Manager (Michael A. Eaddy - Did I mention there's a freakin' cruise ship on stage?), and absolutely nothing went wrong that I could see, likely due to the wizardry of Lizz Nehls (Stage Manager).
I am at a loss for how to rave adequately about this production. I, myself, will be seeing this extraordinary show at least two or three more times in order to truly savor what a fine group of talented artists we are fortunate to have in the Center of the Universe, Gainesville, Florida. For the crown jewel of theatre in our Eden in the forest, this is a crown jewel of a play! Kudos to the cast and crew. I only hope that Gainesville audiences can live up to the HIPP's ambitious rewarding and risky story-telling by simply sitting in a paid seat with a glass of wine and remembering this: without story-telling, the root of all culture, our species will perish. DOH!
So see this show.
Addendum: I want to say one more thing. This is the Florida premiere of Mr. Burns - a Post Electric Play. Other theaters have played the musical finale of this piece as comedy. Director Lauren Caldwell did not do that. I have it on good authority that she called the writer and arranged to take the material as seriously as the play warrants (which, come to find out, was the writer's original intention). To play the end as a gag would have been a diabolical mistake. And that is why Lauren Caldwell is Lauren Caldwell.
Permit me one more addendum: Arrive a half-hour early so you can get your tickets squared away, get that drink without waiting in a line, peruse the art in the gallery, and enjoy the hilarious and wonderfully weird selections of audio and songs playing throughout the house before the show.