Looking back at mr. burns stage ithaca.com electricity voltage in norway

##

Post-apocalyptic tales abound in film and fiction, but the stage can serve up a devastating future just as effectively. Continuing its seasonal theme of “escape,” Cornell’s Department of Performing and Media Arts shows us fugitives from a worldwide catastrophe, pockets of humanity determined to survive. The show: Annie Washburn’s Mr. Burns, a post-electric play.

This 2012 work (the young playwright’s 12th) premiered at D.C.s Woolly Mammoth and then shifted to New York’s Playwright’s Horizons in 2013. Fascinated by the unusual concept and zany production, I was eager to see it again. How many plays, after all, critique our culture via both The Simpsons and Gilbert and Sullivan, themselves social send-ups?

Under Ph.D. student Jayme Kilburn’s direction, the designers have created a splendidly creepy world in which the nuclear power grid has collapsed, spewing radiation. (Thanks, greedy Mr. Burns.) Kent Goetz’s backdrop of a corroded metallic wall, string of unlit light bulbs forming a proscenium arch, and more rusty framing all hover over the opening scene’s homely plaid couch. A few pieces of salvaged furniture, upended trash, and a fire simultaneously define a campsite, a hideout, the beginnings of a new home. Throughout, E.D. Intemann’s murky lighting disturbingly reminds us what our world would be without electricity.

Seven young survivors, in various stages of wariness and trauma, have circled round this small flame and to keep their spirits up are sharing stories –– actually, they’re recalling, fitfully, episodes of The Simpsons. Washburn takes us back to the essence of art: telling tales around a primal campfire.

When an eighth person intrudes, she’s met with guns, then grudgingly welcomed, and a moving ritual follows: As she lists the names of those she’s seen in her travels, others pull out their notebooks and recite the names of the missing they’re still seeking. Eventually her own G&S show experience is woven into their Simpson recall.

Fast forward to the next scene, seven years later: The gang has become a theatre troupe (one of many), performing remembered bits, complete with TV sets and props –– even including a mammoth reconstructed roadster. Out of next to nothing, the survivors have made art, or what passes for it –– a bizarre mashup of line and song fragments, clichés and slogans, shards of ads and television and pop culture.

And how they argue among themselves, taking their mindless entertainment so seriously! At intermission, a techie dances by herself to catchy pop music, and when the second act begins, we see the rear wall was in fact a scrim. Behind it, a caped figure slowly bicycles, generating the electricity for the entire performance that follows. If your meditation on the perils of nuclear power wasn’t unnerving enough, add this reminder of the slavery behind most technological advances.

It’s 75 years later: the pop culture snippets have been elevated to a religion (oy vey!), all the figures now forbiddingly masked and uniquely costumed (fine work by designer Sarah E. Bernstein). It’s Star Wars meets Greek mythology meets Carnival! –– “living the vida loca” in more ways than one.

And the religious ritual is a performance, of course: from behind the wall emerges a river boat, on which the players (or is this what’s left of real life?) reimagine The Simpsons’ Cape Feare episode. A fearsome, grotesque Sideshow Bob destroys the Simpson family one by one (with the help of his avenging creatures, Itchy and Scratchy). Bart, ready to die, somehow manages to kill his nemesis and all the haloed dead are resurrected for a grand, life-affirming finale. (Yes, there’s lots of haphazard singing, amply backed by Alejandra Diemecke’s live music direction and Kelley Mark’s sound.)