Will episodes of “The Simpsons” become cultural cockroaches surviving the end of the world? Imagine those irreverent satires turning up as the revered epic literature of previous generations. That proposition accompanies several others in Capital Stage’s dark, dense season-opening production of Anne Washburn’s “Mr. Burns, a Post Electric Play.”
The first production under new artistic director Michael Stevenson’s tenure likely will divide audiences as it challenges them to consider what kinds of art and entertainment we want. The question gets asked in the play itself. Alternately fascinating and frustrating with a smothering intelligence that overwhelms its intermittent heart, “Mr. Burns” should be seen even if its grand ambitions aren’t completely realized.
Part post-apocalyptic dirge and part overstuffed pop-culture mashup, Washburn has created an intriguing though often-obscure meditation on culture and narrative traditions. The polished ensemble offers strong, watchable performances despite each section of the three-act play feeling slightly bloated. There’s also the sense that Washburn couldn’t be stopped showing off how clever she is, leaving her meta-theatrical tribute to aural tradition with an off-putting, self-conscious edge.
Reaction to each of the three acts from many audience members were: Hah! Hmm. Huh? The production opens as a moody comedy/drama set in a ruined place, likely Northern California. As the title suggests, there’s no electricity. There’s also no law and order or society structures of any kind. People live as small tribes or wander alone. The future has taken us back to the past.
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The tribe that audiences observe entertains itself around a fire, trying to remember dialogue from a “Simpsons” episode centered on Bart being stalked by Sideshow Bob. The 1989 episode called “Cape Feare” riffs on the two cinematic thrillers of the same name. Details of the episode are recalled throughout the play. Veteran Sacramento actor John Lamb displays his subtle virtuosity as Matt, who enthusiastically leads the recall session. Dena Martinez and Katie Rubin as Maria and Jenny also give taut performances.
Kirk Blackinton’s loner Gibson adds menace to the vague narrative, giving an oblique backstory about the recent devastation. From here we jump seven years into the future, and the tribe has become a troupe of “Simpsons”-episode re-enactors. They are just one of many troupes that are traveling around, offering performances. There’s still no electricity or much security beyond one’s own firearms.
The group also performs long-vanished commercials and debates their purposes, the meaning of entertainment and the memory of forgotten associations. They also debate what reactions the details in their commercials might evoke. “Shiraz makes a lot of people slightly nervous because they don’t remember if they drank it or not and if they liked it or not or even if it was red or white,” one character says.
In the final act – 75 more years into the future – characters offer a stylized musical interpretation of a dimly remembered cartoon satire of a remade noir thriller. That’s a lot of remove, and the distance doesn’t give the story context as much as it makes it feel remote. Gail Russell’s costume design for the titular third act is remarkable in evoking a nebulous future with ties to the hazy past.
The 45-minute operetta is as much a speculative artifact as an actual experience. Michael Friedman wrote the music, Washburn the lyrics and David Taylor provides musical direction and accompaniment. Amanda Salazar’s moving performance as everyman Bart aches to connect. Jouni Kiriola has a devastating turn as the passion-play villain version of Mr. Burns.
The play references other “Simpsons” episodes, including “A Streetcar Named Marge,” “Homer the Heretic” and “Bart of Darkness.” There are also touches of Gilbert and Sullivan along with Beyoncé in the blender. You don’t have to be a “Simpsons” aficionado to approach the play, though you may get more of the references. Still, a “Simpsons” devotee told me familiarity didn’t help him much with the loose narrative.
Director Stevenson embraces the discordant material, pulling complex, cohesive performances from the ensemble. Each act features standouts – Lamb in the first, Blackinton in the second, Kiriola and Salazar in the third. Martinez and Rubin (as solid as she’s ever been) are excellent throughout.
At its cool, studied heart, “Mr. Burns” is a conceptual play. The characters don’t make decisions, change or go on journeys – the playwright’s ideas do. Whether the audience goes on a journey as well or just curiously watches the spectacle unfold will be an individual matter.
At one point a character says: “Meaningless entertainment, on the other hand, is actually really hard” to create. “Mr. Burns” suggests something else. Creating entertaining meaning is what’s difficult.
A POST ELECTRIC PLAY
What: A dark comedy by Anne Washburn, directed by Michael Stevenson with Kirk Blackinton, Elizabeth Holzman, Dena Martinez, Katie Rubin, Jouni Kirjola, John P. Lamb, Tiffanie Mack and Amanda Salazar
Where: Capital Stage (2215 J St., Sacramento)
When: 7 p.m. Wednesdays; 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays; and 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Through Oct. 4.
Tickets: $25-35; discounts for student rush; active military and seniors
Information: 916-995-5464; capstage.org
Time: 2 hours and 15 minutes, including one intermission