Mr. Burns, a post-electric play

What is this? we ask ourselves ten minutes into Mr. Burns, a post-electric play. Some guys sitting around a campfire, telling stories that they remember badly, hoping that the creak in the woods they just heard is food and not an intruder? A surprisingly moving passage in which news is exchanged by summoning names from address books?

And yet, and yet. Out of such rude yet inherently theatrical materials, Anne Washburn recapitulates the development of culture: survivors of a generalized failure of the electric power grid keep themselves alive by quoting bits of Gilbert and Sullivan and episodes of Matt Groening’s The Simpsons. As the years roll along, quotation becomes invention; light comedy and satire becomes bloody, lyrical tragedy. Or, as my OTC put it, when there is no physical property to speak of (when your stage machinery is made of recycled blue plastic tarpaulins), there remains intellectual property.

Some engaging acting performances in the first act—James Sugg’s taciturn, Robert Mitchum-channelling Sam, the travelling Gibson (Chris Genebach) with hidden G&S skills—become absorbed into the ensemble playing of the second and third acts. Indeed, by act 3, set far in the future, we’ve dispensed with distinguishable characters at all. But it’s that third act towards which this play is driving, a marvelous palimpsest of bits of Western culture high and low (mostly low)—Brechtian songs, all of the actors in half masks, Britney Spears chartbusters—all of the theatrical wires showing because there’s no technology to make them disappear. The thrilling miracle of the end of the act is that there are juice-carrying wires at all.

  • Mr. Burns, a post-electric play, by Anne Washburn, directed by Steven Cosson, music by Michael Friedman, Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, Washington