PlayMakers Repertory Company has made a brilliant choice for its new Producing Artistic Director: Vivienne Benesch. Regular PRC attendees will remember her for her delicate direction of last year’s beautiful Love Alone. She has also directed Red, and In the Next Room (the vibrator play) for the company. Benesch has led the Chautauqua Theatre Company for 12 years, and has taught at Juillard and her alma mater, NYU. She will begin at PlayMakers in January, 2016, in time to work up the 16-17 season. We can quit crying over Joseph Haj’s departure now.
I may be the worst person or the best to consider Anne Washburn’s 2012 work, Mr. Burns, a post-electric play, which uses the long-running TV show The Simpsons to look at what a culture remembers, and how those memories morph into mythologies which themselves continue to evolve–or devolve. This is because I have never seen any episode of that show, or any part of one, having found the ubiquitous references to it more than sufficient to inform me of its basic qualities, and relieve me of any perceived necessity for partaking of this cultural phenomenon, with its hideous cartooning and crass tone.
Thus I came to Manbites Dog Theater‘s current production with both ignorance about and bias against its source material.
Despite my personal abhorrence for the very idea of cultural mythologies deriving from television, since the inception of broadcast, they have done so, and Washburn’s concept is perfectly valid, even if her script is a little wonky and confusing in places. But if you can make the leaps with her, and the wonderful cast at Manbites, she and they offer plenty to think on.
Also, the production is funny and delightful.
Directed by Jeff Storer, an expansive humanist, Mr. Burns pokes at the questions of how we remember; what we do with memories shared by the culture at large; how memory, stripped down to a series of iconic essentials, becomes mythic; and even hints at Platonic forms in these myths made by us humans on our Homerian epic journey through time. It also includes some biting remarks on the cartoon form, and a nasty little fight over the values of aesthetics vs those of entertainment. “No motivation, no consequence,” says Julie Oliver’s character during the second act. “That’s the POINT of a cartoon.” And–“things aren’t funny when they’re true: they’re awful!” No beauty or sublimity here.
The cast of nine, with one exception, are well-known and much admired local actors who have worked together in numerous combinations over many years: Michael Brocki, Marcia Edmundson, Derrick Ivey, Carly Prentiss Jones, Lormarev Jones, Bart Matthews, Julie Oliver and Geraud Staton. The well of trained, practicing theatrical talent in this area is deep and wide, and a company like Manbites can put together casts as if it were a repertory company of resident artists. There is nothing that compares with the work done by a cast like this, that begins any new complex theatrical with pre-existing trust and respect. On opening night of Mr. Burns, this group was as wide-open as I’ve ever seen any of them, and that is saying quite a bit. The one new person is Emily Levinstone, a Duke music major with a very good voice. She leads the chorus, and Bart Matthews provides the music, on stage and off, with accordion, piano and guitar. (Matthews wrote the score for this production–the original score is by Michael Friedman.)
The play’s three acts are very different, and even buffered by intermissions, the transitions can be jolting. Opening with a few traumatized survivors of a world-wide apocalypse sitting around a campfire in the very near future, it moves to a time seven years hence, with the survivors rebuilding lives and re-creating from fragments the myth of their lifetimes: The Simpsons, and then to 75 years beyond that, when the story has acquired a Wagnerian tone. In a theatrical sense, the show changes from a moody art-house scene, to “spontaneous” singing, to ensemble work with higher production values, to a truly fabulous classic musical song-and-dance routine–a seamless medley of pop songs (“it’s the end of the world as I know it but I feel fine”)–to the grandly conceived operatic finale. The singers enter chanting “D’oh! D’oh! D’oh!”
However you may respond to the script, there can be nothing but admiration for the acting–and the singing. Derrick Ivey just continues to astonish. When he, the stranger Gibson just admitted to the campfire, jumps up and begins bellowing a Gilbert and Sullivan ditty, soon luring the others into a charming rendition of “English Man,” the audience nearly fell out of our seats from the jolt of cognitive dissonance (G&S at MDT??!). Another character says, oh, you must be an aficionado, and Gibson replies, perfectly deadpan: “It’s worse that that. I belong to an amateur society.” Derrick Ivey, of course, is a mainstay of The Durham Savoyards. In addition to having served as scenic and costume designer (and mask maker) for this production, Ivey also plays the titular Mr. Burns, who is (now I know) the anti-hero. He is particularly fine in the final fighting (choreographed by Jeff A. R. Jones) with Bart Simpson, played by Lormarev Jones.
Jones outdoes herself here, in both speech and action, and her singing voice is very powerful, especially in “This is the moment when I say goodbye to everything.” Geraud Staton, who has a very moving scene earlier with Ivey, also possesses a mellifluous voice. When he sings “everything will be alright,” you believe him, as improbable as the lulling statement sounds. Bart (Lormarev Jones) and the ensemble close the show with the unambiguous statement of survivors: “I’m not afraid of anything…I will meet life splendidly. Yes, splendidly.”
That’s worth mythologizing.
Mr. Burns continues at Manbites Dog Theater through Nov.7. Tickets here. NOTE the early start time.