Up-and-coming Melbourne-based company Lightning Jar Theatre made a sound decision when it chose Mr Burns: A post-electric play as its latest production – one that paid off in a sold-out first season. Now it’s back, by popular demand, for a short re-run at fortyfive downstairs.
Don’t be fooled by the primitive illumination: this is electrifying theatre.
Critically acclaimed as one of the 25 best American plays since Angels in America, Anne Washburn’s gripping post-apocalyptic black comedy begins in a warehouse where eight strangers, survivors of some as-yet-unspecified catastrophic event, sit around a trash-can fire attempting to stave off fear and boredom by recreating, from memory, the iconic ‘Cape Feare’ episode of The Simpsons.
Here, storytelling is a means of escaping a grim new world order, one in which nuclear catastrophe and the collapse of power grids globally has thrown everyone into a Mad Max-like neo-Dark Age.
Act 2, set a few years later, sees the survivors, now a struggling band of post-electric-age thespians, monetising memories of a now-dead digital world – trading lines from once-ubiquitous TV episodes and advertisements with passing strangers to expand their repertoire, competing with other troupes and rehearsing hilariously vacuous material in earnest.
By Act 3, set another 75 years into the future, the original players are long dead, and cheesy pastiches of part-remembered TV fare have given way to elaborate, ritualistic melodrama, the original Simpsons characters transformed by time and violent experience.
Part black comedy, part high drama, the play is also an exploration of larger questions: about the ubiquitous role that electricity, and its underpinning of digital media, plays in modern life, and what we’d all do without it; the slippery, subjective nature of memory; humans’ need for storytelling and the creation of shared realities; and the evolution of ritual.
Washburn’s sophisticated script works on multiple levels: as a riveting story in its own right; as pure entertainment – in the clever re-workings of Matt Groenig’s script, the hilarious recreations of bygone ads, the gorgeous, Glee-worthy pop-song medley that precedes Act 2’s arresting climax and the Greek-tragedy-like glory of Act 3; and as a thought-provoking black satire that resonates long after the play is over.
This is profound theatre wrapped in a deceptively simple coat, smartly directed, evocatively staged and engagingly performed by a multi-skilled ensemble cast.
Though you’ll want to empty your bladder beforehand or risk squirming through Acts 1 and 2, it’s well worth leaving the couch for.
Lightning Jar Theatre’s production of Mr Burns: A Post Electric Play runs from 1 – 19 May at fortyfivedownstairs.