Imagine our world after a nuclear disaster, a world without electricity, without television, without access to the invented stories and shows we have accustomed ourselves to believing are important. That is the harsh landscape playwright Anne Washburn wants you to imagine in her clever "Mr. Burns, A Post-Electric Play" at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company.
In "Mr. Burns," Washburn pictures a group of individuals in the woods sitting around a fire on ratty furniture. One of them, Sam (James Sugg) acts as lookout, holding a shotgun. Three others freely trade memories about the past. The one thing they remember most clearly is the television show "The Simpsons," particularly the 1993 parody of two versions of the movie "Cape Fear."
As the three recreate the plot and characters of the Simpsons' "Cape Fear," another individual, Gibson (Chris Genebach) wanders into their midst. He is armed and has come a long way.
|'Mr. Burns, A Post-Electric Play'|
|» Where: Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, 641 D St. NW|
|» When: Through July 1|
|» Info: $40 to $77.50; $15 rush seats; 202-393-3939; woollymammoth.net|
Soon it becomes clear that there have been many mysterious nuclear explosions throughout the country. Gibson has come through Boston, which is "a mess," and Providence is deserted. Millions of people have died, and the main activity survivors engage in is comparing lists. They each have address books that they compare in hopes of finding out that someone they love is still alive.
In the second act, which takes place seven years after the first, the original group of survivors has been joined by another individual, Quincy (the extraordinary Erika Rose). Life is hard. The survivors live by performing remembered television episodes, paying strangers for forgotten lines. Act II includes a fabulous collision of bits of music from decades past (music direction: Jonathan Tuzman; composer: Michael Friedman).
Act III of "Mr. Burns" leaps ahead 75 years, moving into a totally different theatrical style to show the final survivors performing their origin myth. Now the individuals are all performers, and they primarily sing. They don't recall accurately the disaster of the past. And the "Cape Fear" segment is an exaggerated miniopera in which there is a new villain.
The cast of "Mr. Burns" is sensational, as directed by Steven Cosson. In addition to the talented Genebach, Sugg and Rose, Steve Rosen, Jenna Sokolowski, Kimberly Gilbert and Amy McWilliams round out the stellar ensemble.
Throughout "Mr. Burns," Washburn deftly validates the viability of a cartoon as a national symbol. More, she shows how our memories change, mutating wildly the further we get from the original event. Finally, Washburn creates a sense of what it takes to create a myth and how our myths alter over time.