Monday, September 16, 2013

Mr. Burns, a post-electric play @ Playwrights Horizons

If you're like most people, you're reliant on your technology. Going even an hour without your smart phone feels like an eternity. If you miss the latest episode of Breaking Bad, there's nothing to talking to your coworkers about come Monday morning. Imagine if our technology-based society was suddenly left without electricity, the precious power we rely on so heavily. Set in a not-too-far-away Post Apocalyptic America, "Mr. Burns, a Post-Electric Play," which opened September 15, gives an insight on just who we've become, as well as what we could be.

Act One shows the immediate aftermath of Nuclear Power Plants shutting down, leaving no power, and a large part of the population killed by excess radioactivity. We meet a small group of strangers, survivors who have come together to find lost love ones. To keep themselves entertained, they are retelling the "Cape Feare" episode of The Simpsons. It's not a perfect reenactment, with Matt (played by Matthew Maher) drawing blanks and spitting out "Oh I know this is really funny!" but nevertheless, spirits are kept up. That is, until another survivor arrives. At this point it is hard to tell if anyone is an ally or an enemy. Act Two fast forwards to seven years later, still no power, but society seems to have gone on. Troupes of re-enactors battle for the best "episodes" of beloved, long missed shows. Remembered lines have become a commodity, and live "commercials" try to get  us to remember how much we miss drinking Diet Coke, taking hot baths, and listening to Britney Spears (as troupe member Susannah [Susannah Flood] states, 'We have an opportunity to provide meaning'). A sudden, fatal stand-off brings us to intermission.

At this point, I wasn't quite sure what I was watching; the first two acts are very vague in explaining relationships, and what exactly has happened to lead up to this point. It wasn't until an older woman sitting in front of me turned around and we began to have a conversation (she asked I didn't use her name) that things began to make sense. She pointed to her husband next to her and told me, "We grew up through World War II, so we've seen exactly how people have changed over the last few decades. People have become so glued to their devices they've forgotten about true beauty. The smell of the trees, the sound of leaves crunching under our feet. Now it's only the superfluous stuff that matters. I'll walk onto an elevator, and say 'Good morning!' to the people on there. They all then pull out their headphones and give me confused looks because to them I didn't say anything important." At that moment, Mr. Burns' message became painfully clear to me. Have we become so invested in the "superfluous stuff" that we've gotten so out of touch with the beauty in simplicity? Or basic human interaction? Even as I spoke to her, I felt the need to check my iPhone and see if I had any new Facebook notifications or if any celebrities had tweeted anything interesting, even though I was in the middle of one of the most insightful conversations I'd had in quite some time.

Act Three brings us even farther into the future, 75 years to be exact. Electricity seems to exist, but only by means of man-powered generators, so it is still very limited. The Simpsons are still being re-enacted, however it's not the family you and I are familiar with now. Masked performers give us an almost tribal music-based rendition of that same "Cape Feare" episode. Based only on the memories of past actors, the once comedic cartoon has become twisted into a dark piece of performance art, laced with bits of pop culture from the past (including Eminem, The Flintstones melody, and the haunting theme of the Halloween movies). Bart Simpson (Quincy Tyler Bernstine) has become a young hero, singing ballads about overcoming obstacles and avenging the death of his parents. Mr. Burns (Sam Breslin Wright) is now an evil villain with a poison touch, along with doting sidekicks Itchy and Scratchy (Flood and Maher, respectively). After the villain is slain and the hero lives to see another day, the company remove their masks to end their show with a song about "being a true American."

As the lights came back up, I said good bye to the woman in front of me, gathered my things, and walked back into reality to see the swarms of New Yorkers with their eyes fixed onto their phones and tablets. What would happen if all of this was suddenly taken away from us? What would remain? If Mr. Burns, and my intermission companion have any indication, it's human interaction and our ability to create art. To be able to convey our emotions through music, and in turn inspire others. Who knows? In 75 years, people may be singing Britney Spears' songs like we do with Frank Sinatra now.

Mr. Burns, a Post-Electric Play is produced by Playwrights Horizons and runs through October 20.

Review By: Kelcie Kosberg

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