Chicago Theatre Review
We Tell the Stories
Mr. Burns – Theatre Wit
If and when the world comes to an end, people will be left with little, except recollections and fond memories from popular culture, particularly from that most enduring of all TV shows, “The Simpsons.” As depicted in Anne Washburn’s “Post-Electric Play,” with a score by Michael Friedman, people all over America will survive the dark, nuclear nights that follow a global power outage by remembering their favorite episodes and retelling stories about Homer, Bart and others from Matt Groening’s animated phenomenon. Much as prehistoric man may’ve entertained his cave-mates around the campfire with stories of adventure, this collection of futuristic survivors find solace and camaraderie in their memories of and fondness for the prime-time cartoon classic that lasted 23 seasons, and counting. They particularly fixate upon an episode from the show’s second season entitled “Cape Feare,” a satire of the film “Cape Fear,” which Entertainment Weekly called “a meticulous pop-culture takeoff.” In addition to searching for missing loved ones and trying to locate batteries, this need to connect and entertain seems to rank tops among all other human needs.
Washburn’s three-act piece with music had its genesis with the investigative theatre company, the Civilians. Evolving into a three-act play that takes audiences further and further into the future, the play eventually opened at New York’s Playwright’s Horizons in 2013. Ms. Washburn’s work is actually a celebration of the power of storytelling and live theatre, although a familiarity with and a love of “The Simpsons” is important to fully appreciate the many allusions and some of the humor. There are, however, countless other pop culture references that permeate this play, especially within the musical numbers (“The Muppet Show,” “The Mikado,” “Single Ladies”), so unless audiences have been living in a cave they’ll recognize many of the other media-inspired resources.
A very talented and versatile eight-member cast is led by director Jeremy Wechsler in this manic, primal staging on Theater Wit’s main stage. Joe Schermoly’s false proscenium set, adorned with Simpson characters in bas relief, is fun. His play-within-a-play demands are met with artistry and wit. Brigitte Ditmars creates some fancy footwork for the musical numbers, while Geoff Coates choreographs the fight scenes with skill and care. Talented costumers Mara Blumenfeld and Mieka VanderPloeg create racks of costumes and accessories to replicate the Simpson look, first with understandably makeshift materials and later, supposedly 75 years in the future, with more polish and panache. The third act gets carried away with the fog effects, initially making it difficult to see the actors, but the mist eventually parts.
The entire cast is excellent, with Leslie Ann Sheppard standing out as a working wife in Act II and as Bart Simpson in the Act III melodrama set on a barge. Andrew Jessop transforms from a quietly enthusiastic storyteller into a maniacal, villainous Mr. Burns. Jeff Trainor is a likable survivor named Gibson who eventually morphs smoothly into Sideshow Bob and Homer Simpson. Christina Hall, so excellent recently as Patsy Cline at Theo Ubique, is top-notch as both Maria and Itchy. Leah Urzendowski is gutsy and full of spit and vinegar as refugee Jenny and finally as Marge Simpson. Daniel Desmarais commands the storytelling session of the first act as Matt and later playing several other Simpsons characters with ease. Kelley Abell becomes a spunky Mrs. Krabape and Hannah Gomez makes a no-nonsense director/cast member as Colleen, finally becoming Lisa Simpson in Act III.
This show, while it’s quirky and always surprising the audience with the unexpected, also relies a great deal on the audience’s familiarity with the humor and satire of “The Simpsons.” However, as a riff on how popular media has become today’s mythology, inspiring the stuff memories are made of, Anne Washburn’s play with music is an fascinating, enjoyable look into the future of theatre and storytelling.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented January 9-March 1 by Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont Ave., Chicago.
Tickets are available by calling the box office at 773-975-8150 or by going to www.theaterwit.org.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by visiting www.theaterinchicago.com.