Tuesday, June 19, 2018
Stage

Review: Freefall's 'Mr. Burns' devolves into the abstract, masquerading as deep

ST. PETERSBURG — Like any other transaction, going to the theater implies a contract, a quid pro quo.

The seller promises to deliver certain merchandise in exchange for cash. Unlike, say, Sears, performing arts do not guarantee your satisfaction, and may intentionally try to undermine those notions. In the best of circumstances, that is because they regard part of their product as educational, and learning is not always pleasant.

That seems to be what we're dealing with in Mr. Burns — A Post-electric Play, by Anne Washburn, now at Freefall Theatre. The story starts in a changed world not far from today and extends more than 80 years into the future. In its own way, it delivers a consistent vision, an odd thing to say about a show with three sets of characters in three acts. This production, directed by Eric Davis, delivers intelligent commentary in imaginative and playful ways.

Scenes designed by Steven K. Mitchell nail the grim humor of a dark world, the inhabitants of which quote episodes of The Simpsons like biblical text. That does not mean that Mr. Burns offers believable premises, even on the human nature it purports to analyze. Instead, Mr. Burns comes across like the result of a college dormitory bull session, turned into a senior thesis. Over time and despite its bright spots, the show's length seems less about storytelling than a series of writing prompts, polished off and performed by a talented cast.

The show opens in an ambiguous setting in a world without power, following the catastrophic failure of nuclear energy. Survivors meet strangers warily, try to account for remaining friends and relatives who are still missing. The disappearance of television and the Internet forces the inhabitants of this world to revert to the oral tradition, recounting myths derived from The Simpsons, especially the 10 or so episodes involving the evil genius character Sideshow Bob.

The first two acts showcase Mr. Burns' most engaging elements, especially in dialogue that sounds entirely natural, the way people actually talk.

The second and third acts become increasingly abstract, a devolution made more bearable by a musical score by Michael Friedman. And that sequence from The Simpsons' “Cape Feare" episode (a running theme throughout) is pretty funny. T. Robert Pigott turns in a notable performance as Gibson and as Homer Simpson. Nick Lerew, Kelly Pekar and Hannah Benitez are fine performers, and the entire ensemble cast acquits itself well. Some sequences in the second act, in which a theater troupe performs Simpsons episodes and commercials to a mashup of Snoop Dogg and La Vida Loca, are also great stuff.

It seems as though the playwright and cast are having fun, and who would want to begrudge that?

Well, the audience, perhaps.

The central premise is, for me, a little hard to buy, even for a vaguely avant-garde treatment of culture. People who cannot create on their own except in a derivative way, who cling to fragments of a cartoon and become agitated when they forget, is a clever concept. But it's not exactly challenging, nor does it reflect the resourcefulness in human history. Bereft people are easy enough to satirize, but doing so does not seem like an achievement. They are rather an easy target.

The opening night crowd at Freefall wanted Mr. Burns to work. They laughed when it was funny — and there are many such places — and even participated when called upon. But a fair number had left after the second intermission. Presumably the rest enjoyed what they were watching, otherwise they would not have stayed to the end.

Contact Andrew Meacham at [email protected] or (727) 892-2248. Follow @torch437.

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