Players by the Sea’s motto for the last few seasons has been “Expect the Unexpected.” Players’ current production of “Mr. Burns, a Post-Electric Play,” which opened May 8, 2015 and will run through May 23, certainly delivers on that promise. A dark musical comedy, it is challenging to the talented cast and director as well as to local theatergoers.
The play, written by Anne Washburn, with music composed by Michael Friedman, debuted at the Woolly Mammoth Theatre in Washington D.C. in 2012, where it played for almost three months. It moved to the Playwrights Horizons stage in New York City the following year for a brief run. This year, the work has been staged in theatres throughout the country, including the American Conservatory in San Francisco, The Guthrie in Minneapolis and The Hippodrome in Gainesville, Florida.
The story begins with five actors of varying ages sitting around a makeshift campfire in the very near future, recalling scenes from an episode of “The Simpsons,” a popular animated sitcom which debuted in December, 1989, and is now in its 26th season. The on-stage characters, Matt (Alec Hadden), Jenny (Alix Hillary Bond), Susannah (Ashley Augustyniak), Sam (Myles Hughes), and Colleen (Maya Adkins) have survived a recent global catastrophe, an apocalypse. They are filled with fear and hostility toward outsiders and are also armed to the teeth.
Gibson (Josh Waller), a stranger who is accepted into the group, brings news of the meltdown of nuclear power plants and a list of those who have died in various east coast cities, which underscores the bleak future ahead for the few fortunate survivors.
The second act is incorporated into the first, making the first segment ninety minutes or so. The time is seven years later and the survivors have added Quincy (Kristen Walsh) to their group and have formed a theatre troupe. They spend the remainder of this act performing scenes based on episodes and commercials from “The Simpsons.” Special emphasis is placed on “Cape Feare,” one of the most famous episodes, which was based on a 1962 film with Robert Mitchum and a later remake with Robert De Niro.
Act III, set 75 years after the devastation at the beginning, brings a musical, featuring our actors in an operetta based on “Cape Feare.” Musical Director Stefanie Batson is on piano, with Damon Martin on bass. The multi-talented seven actors performed what we considered the best part of the production and certainly the funniest and easiest to comprehend. While all sing and participate wearing typical “Simpsons” masks, Kristen Walsh as Bart and Myles Hughes as Mr. Burns are the principal characters.
The costumes were very colorful in Act III, and were created by Jane LaRoque and Christopher Farrell (who is also the Stage Manager). Jocelyn Geronimo was the choreographer. Jim Wiggins’s lighting design augmented the action on the stage and the sets by Tom Fallon consisted of a dilapidated concrete building for the first two acts and a colorful ship scene for the final act.
The show is Director Devlin Mann’s debut at Players but he has a long history of participation in theatre in this city. We recall seeing him as an actor at Jacksonville University over twenty years ago; he later independently produced two fine Shakespeare classics in this city. A world traveler, he received his master’s degree for directing in London, and in 2010 spent two years in France creating a multi-disciplinary arts center.
The question you may be asking is “Do we have to know anything about or have seen the TV series to enjoy the play?” As the Dual Critics, we would say it would be helpful, but not essential. After all, the underlying story is one with an enduring appeal that we’ve heard before: A small group of survivors succeeds in saving civilization after almost total collapse. Players’ marvelous Dramaturg Holly Gutshall has three pages of information on Homer Simpson and this show’s plot, so get there early if you plan to see it and read the excellent primer for this play.
This show has some very funny moments along with some very confusing moments, but the script redeems itself in the final act. Yes indeed, expect the unexpected!!!
Players will be starting its 50th season this fall, but before that they have two more shows this season with the award winning “August, Osage County” in June and the musical “Aida” in July. Players by the Sea is located at l06 Sixth Street North, in Jacksonville Beach. Call 249-0289 or visit playersbythesea.org for tickets and additional information.