No matter how far society advances, we crave storytelling. The celebration, and well, the very basic need for connection and how stories shape our lives, is at the core of the unorthodox dark comedy “Mr. Burns, a Post-Electric Play.”
“Cape Feare,” a 1993 episode of “The Simpsons,” becomes a cultural touchstone for a ragtag random group of survivors in the opening act.
Inventively staged and impressively acted, R-S Theatrics has produced the local premiere of Anne Washburn’s sly spin on communication in a chaotic post-apocalyptic environment.
Director Christine Rios, whose passion for theater comes through in the riskiest projects, is deeply committed to the craft and art form that she believes transforms lives.
Using the Ivory Theatre space in an unconventional way is the first clue that you are in for something different.
With flickering candles guiding your path, Rios first transports you to a campfire in the woods, and you are very close to the actors effectively using the space to convey everything you need to know.
We move around for second and third acts, and not knowing what’s ahead adds to the offbeat charm.
The first act crackles like the imaginary logs the ensemble is feeding to the fire. Details are sketchy — some unspecified disaster has taken place, loved ones have been lost, and life as we knew it in the U.S. is no longer.
Chuck Brinkley is Matt, an affable dad on his own, and Will Bonofiglio is a smart young single guy, while Rachel Tibbetts is a spunky type A as Jenny, Jennifer Theby-Quinn is a quivering mass as Maria, and Rachel Hanks is a withdrawn Colleen. Enter Jared Sanz-Agero as Gibson, a big man with a dramatic personality who wins over the wary bunch.
Because of nuclear power plant failures, and widespread radioactivity, one assumes it’s a day-after type scenario. But zombies could be lurking, or aliens could have landed, too.
Coping with loss and existing with bare essentials, the characters take comfort in remembering the glorious pop culture references jam-packed into every episode of “The Simpsons.”
The longest-running scripted TV show of all-time, as well as longest-running animated series and sitcom, Matt Groening’s dysfunctional family is set to begin its 27th season on Fox. Known for its film parodies and spoofs, “The Simpsons” is a rich resource for the playwright’s material.
If you know the episode — one of my favorites —then it adds to the enjoyment as the characters recall the details. But you do not have to be a fan or familiar with the show to understand what’s happening.
The middle act takes place seven years later, when they are a tight-knit theatrical community who skillfully stages their version of “The Simpsons.” Maggie Wininger has joined as Quincy, a savvy actress.
In the final act, 75 years has passed. The story and characters have changed, but the desperation of people who need to understand things after civilization was on the verge of collapse have created a musical pageant to make some sense of the world.
The golden-voiced Kay Love appears as Edna, and Bonofiglio stands out as evil Mr. Burns (Homer’s nuclear power plant boss — oh the irony is intentional).
Rios and her creative staff convey such joy in bringing fresh, experimental and avant-garde pieces to our attention that you can’t fault the interpretation, even if the material has some rough spots.
The first two acts were absorbing and kept me off kilter, while the third act, though filled with splendid voices and fierce performances, was puzzling.
Washburn’s details are sometimes vague, and frustratingly non-existent, but this cast excels at creating a depth of emotions as they adapt to their new normal.
They are “all in” for the journey the three acts take us through, and it’s admirable work. The lyrics by Washburn, to Michael Friedman’s score, are clever, and interpreted well in strong vocals.
Of special note is Nathan Schroeder’s lighting design, indeed a triumph in a post-electric world, Kyra Bishop’s sparse and effective scenic design, and Leah Luciano’s music direction.
“Mr. Burns” is a launching pad for creative thought, ruminations on current society, and a fine display of exceptional local talent who thrive when challenged.
At a glance
What: “Mr. Burns: a Post-Electric Play”
Who: R-S Theatrics
When: 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 7 p.m. Sunday
Where: Ivory Theatre, 7620 Michigan, St. Louis