Post-Apocalyptic Comedy with Luminous Theatre

Apr. 24, 2017
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Rachael Zientek, Jordan Gwiazdowski, Hannah Ripp-Dieter in MR. BURNS with Luminous Theatre - Jason Fassl

It’s an impressive beer selection for the end of the world. Actually it’s just the end of Riverwest. (It only FEELS like the end of the world.) It’s the north edge: there are warehouses and factories and things up there. Cross over the river and you’re on the northern edge of UWM. It’s a cozy, little pub called the Riverwest Filling Station just down the street from where Luminous Theatre is staging Mr. Burns, A Post-Electric Play.

By the time I’d reached the Riverwest Filling Station, I’d been on the bus long enough to watch an entire episode of The Simpsons on my iPhone. The episode in question was the second episode of the fifth season, which originally aired on October 7th of 1993. The title of the episode was “Cape Feare.” Kelsey Grammer guest-starred as Sideshow Bob. It figures prominently in the play. I sat at the bar in the Filling Station mulling  over the experience of seeing the only episode of The Simpsons that I’d bothered to watch in over 20 years. I’d just watched a TV show I hadn’t seen since the 20th century. It’s been half a lifetime since I’ve watched it, but it still feels strangely familiar. Like an old dream.

The walk from the Filling Station to the venue is kind of ominous. It feels like you’re getting further and further away from civilization and further and further into something on the edges of human existence. Director Leda Hoffman has chosen the perfect space for the post-electric drama of Mr. Burns.

The first act takes place outside in the shadow of a warehouse. A few people sit around a fire having a casual conversation. Granted: one of them is carrying a shotgun. It still feels casual, though. Anne Washburn’s script is clever. So often in post-apocalyptic shows we get some sort of introductory exposition as to how the end of civilization came about. Here we get it in snatches and snippets of conversation as survivors compare notes on who may or may not still be alive. There was a pandemic. Lots of people died quite suddenly. The power grid went down. Nuclear power plants broke down resulting in radiation. Washburn makes no effort to present this world for the audience. At one point I heard someone behind me whisper, “I have no idea what they’re talking about.” Okay...so if you’re not familiar with post-apocalyptic drama you might be a bit bewildered, but it’s a very organic experience hearing restless exhaustion from these characters as they’re sitting around a fire that we’re all watching in the chill of the post-winter in Riverwest. The human intensity of the cast makes it all accessible on an emotional level even if you're not completely aware of what's going on. 

Before that firs act gets bogged-down in detail of the world, the characters are sitting around having a casual conversation about the “Cape Feare” episode of The Simpsons. It was kind of fun hearing them talk about it having just watched the episode. James Carrington plays a fan of the series who is trying to get everyone’s mind off the oppressive sense of impending doom by talking about sheer trivia in old pop storytelling. It’s weird...in addition to being post-electric, there’s a real post-modernist sensibility about the show that is a real mash-up of different pop cultural references. Most of them really don’t need to be cited, but screenwriter John Vitti’s script for that episode of the Simpsons probably deserves some credit in the actual program. It’s featured so prominently and there are so many echoes of echoes of storytelling that the script becomes kind of a post-modernist funhouse. The episode itself was a spoof of the 1991 movie Cape Fear, which was a remake of a 1962 movie that was, in turn based on a novel from 1957. In the course of the play we see that story echo into the future.

The second act takes place inside the warehouse a few years later. We see rehearsals for a touring post-apocalyptic show that’s evidently playing a circuit with other live re-tellings of Simpsons episodes from other troupes. Again, Washburn gets lost in details as the show business of trying to run a touring theatrical production at the end of the world. The remarkable thing is just how believable Washburn’s post-apocalyptic showbiz feels. It’s strikingly clever. I’d never run across this specific sort of an idea in post-apocalyptic fiction before...there might have been shadows of Entertainment At The End of the World in some of Philip K. Dick novels like Dr. Bloodmoney and (I think) Deus Irae, but those were set a LONG TIME after the apocalypse as I recall. Washburn’s envisioning a world where it’s only a couple of years after the end of the world and one of the first things to get developed in a new civilization is touring theater. We’re Americans...we need to be entertained even if nothing is actually getting manufactured. It’s dark comedy and it’s a lot of fun.

I also love the concept of a “commercial” in Washburn’s post-apocalypse. With no specific products to advertise, “ads” have taken on a completely different dynamic. Here we have Hannah Ripp-Dieter playing a beautiful actress in a flimsy narrative about returning home from a day at work and simply talking with Dylan Bolin about products that existed before the war. With no selection for any kind of consumer goods and everyone just struggling to survive, society fantasizes about everything available at the grocery store before it all ended. Funny stuff. The fact that it’s all presented without too much exposition makes it feel so real...a prospect which is as reassuring as it is disturbing. 

The final act plays out 75 years later. Pop cultural references made earlier in the script and aspects of the Simpsons episode fuse with the emerging narrative of how the end of the world came about. The subsequent civilization treats that episode and history in sort of a dreamy, disorienting religious pageant. Jordan Gwiazdowski plays the ambiguously evil character of “Mr. Burns” who terrorizes the mythoheroic Simpsons. Rachael Zientek is the humble heroic Bart to Gwiazdowski’s villain. Gwiazdowski is brilliant in the role. That specific kind of Silver Age comic book villain-style amplification is REALLY difficult to nail down for any actor. Most of the performances I’ve seen play it far too over-the-top to be grounded in anything. Gwiazdowski seethes with a very textured and well-thought-out intensity. He's a part of a very satisfying ending to what is easily going to be one of the most unique theatrical experiences of the Milwaukee theater season. 

Luminous Theater’s staging of Mr. Burns, a Post-Electric Play runs through May 8 at the end of the world on 3740 N. Fratney St. in Riverwest. For more information, visit Luminous Theater online.

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