“What if . . .?” asks Michael J. Arndt, director, in the program for California Lutheran University’s Theatre Arts Department’s production of Mr. Burns: A Post-Electric Play. “What if . . . future mythology was based upon a television cartoon series?”
The answer may surprise you, depending on your relationship with The Simpsons and your ability to absorb the anxiety-inducing production as presented by the CLU crew.
Mr. Burns, by playwright Anne Washburn, is set in a post-apocalyptic world after an event is alluded to whereby some sort of nuclear accident has rendered humans sans-electricity. We are introduced to a group of survivors by way of a campfire tale, the retelling by memory of The Simpsons episode “Cape Feare,” a parody of the Robert DeNiro film Cape Fear. The setting is bleak: Survivors, six in total, make use of a trashbin fire and lounge on broken furniture. Matt, played with neurotic brilliance by Chris Reynolds-Baldwin, stitches the episode together as best he can with help from fellow survivors Jenny (Leah Dalrymple) and Maria (Kaitlin Ruby).
The survivors cling to their nostalgia of so-called meaningless entertainment with a constant sense of overbearing dread in the featureless theater. When a newcomer is spotted, guns are drawn and reality sets in: This world is not a kind one. Newcomer Gibson (Francisco Hermosillo III) is forced to reveal whether or not he’s met other survivors on his travels, as each member of the group reads aloud names of lost loved ones, evoking haunting memories of real-world post-9/11, or the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami.
Mr. Burns eventually goes completely bonkers, and at the risk of spoiling the fun, praise needs to be given to the artistic and production staff. The theater becomes a theater within a theatre for Act II, with a half-car on wheels and, finally, a riverboat for Act III, an epic feat.
Director Michael J. Arndt balances utter joy, humor and pure fear in Act II, as the cast within a cast recreates “Cape Feare,” replete with commercials, on stage. The joy of working out a solution to problems is overcome by the fear that the performance won’t be good enough for the audience, which in turn sparks traumatic outbursts.
Sonora Carroll, who portrays stage manager Colleen, never allows the humor to overcome the life-and-death reality of the situation. Yes, “Cape Feare” was funny; no, performing it as a means of survival is not.
Costume designer Noelle Raffy’s work is subtle and piecemeal through the first two acts, where grunge is standard, but when Act III begins, the progression is fully realized. The Simpsons characters become warped over time, and actors wear bug-eyed yellow masks that resemble something more likely to be found in Texas Chainsaw Massacre than on The Simpsons. A religion has been born of “Cape Feare” after so many decades of the world’s longest-running game of telephone, and those familiar with the source material may find more horror than humor in its portrayal.
The play’s titular Mr. Burns (Cristian Lipps) is an amalgamation of several Simpsons villains and is the embodiment of cartoon evil as well as this world’s Satan. Brianna Bryan’s Bart, who sings a song of hope and determination in front of a river lined by Simpsons-themed Greek tragedy shades, confirms that this is no longer meaningless entertainment, but the song of myth for a new world, the very basis of a society.
This is a show that needs to be taken seriously in spite of itself, because it walks a tightrope of being too silly if it’s not. The CLU production is very well done and sincere, and for that, I’m happy to say that its vision will haunt me for some time to come.
Mr. Burns: A Post-Electric Play runs through Nov. 20 at California Lutheran University, Theatre Arts Department, 60 W. Olsen Road, Thousand Oaks. For more information, call 493-3452 or visit www.callutheran.edu.