April 28, 2017

The Simpsons as splendid post-apocalyptic force for re-civilisation

Mr Burns – a post-electric play
by Anne Washburn,
Score by Michael Friedman, Lyrics by Anne Washburn
State Theatre Company and Belvoir
Space Theatre, Adelaide Festival Centre
April 26. Tickets: $33- $61. Bookings 131 246 or online.
Duration 2hr 15mins with 20 min interval.
Until May 13.
Sydney season : Belvoir Upstairs Theatre May 19- June 25.

“Post-electric” are the key words in the title of Anne Washburn’s intriguingly inventive dystopia, Mr Burns. Set, we are told, in the very near future, it depicts the United States in structural and social ruin. The grid has shut down, the nuclear power plants are suppurating radiation and the luckless survivors gather in tiny bands, reciting the names of missing loved ones. Rations are sporadic, strangers are enemies, life is grim. Nothing works. Technology has been unplugged, no-one is online anymore.

Instead, people sit around makeshift campfires talking and trying to remember stuff from before the end times – like old Simpsons TV episodes. Gradually they recall scraps of dialogue, plot sequences, signature catch cries and the entwined esoterica of inter-textual cultural references with which, for thirty years of our own history, The Simpsons have amused and beguiled us.

But Washburn is not interested in just some in-joke fun to please Simpsons trainspotters. Her greater, near-quixotic, ambition for Mr Burns is to chart the morphology of folktales, to show how they insinuate themselves into cultural and mythological archetype. It is funny when Matt, Maria, Sam, Colleen, Gibson, Quincy and Jenny reconstruct the Cape Feare episode from Season 5, re-enacting the psychopathic clown, Sideshow Bob, and his pursuit of Bart and his family, but it is also a re-civilising project.

By Act Two, seven years later, they have formed a company of players, competing with rival troupes, performing, often inaccurately reconstructed versions of the Simpsons folios that might have been. By the operatic third act, 75 years on, the Simpsons have become a mythic group of demigods pitching their strength against a Sideshow Bob, who has now become Montgomery Burns, with lashings of Nosferatu, medieval Vice and Frank N.Furter for bad measure.

Director Imara Savage crisply manages the rapidly shifting tropes and styles of Washburn’s script. The first act, originally workshopped by actors whose names became those of the characters, provides well-shaped dialogue for the outstanding cast in this State Theatre /Belvoir co-production. Just as they capture the desolation of a broken civilisation, they also bring splendid musicality (astutely guided by onstage MD, Carol Young) to the triumphantly upbeat finale.

Brent Hill shrewdly underplays Homer, Paula Arundel gives Marge gravity and wisdom, Jude Henshall is staunch as Lisa in an art deco helmet, and Esther Hannaford, without a shred of irony, is a windswept Siegfried as Bart. As Itchy and Scratchie, Jacqy Phillips and Ezra Juanta, complete the bestiary, while Mitchell Butel excels as Burns, hunch-backed in spangled black like a desperate Richard III running out of piranhas.

Savage uses the confines of the Space Theatre with flair and the lo-fi lighting and sound by Chris Petridis and Jeremy Silver is excellent. But the winning touch in this production is Jonathan Oxlade’s wittily thrifty design. Using a simple stage set of polished concrete, dressed in signature post-apocalyptic pastels, he then expands in Act Three with ramshackle candelabra, chorus masks of black goggles and moulded cloth, and costumes from Gotterdammerung and Flash Gordon. It goes very near the brink. But he knows just when to stop.

“The Simpsons as splendid post-apocalyptic force for re-civilisation” The Australian, April 28, 2017, p.16.

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