After a global apocalypse, what might bring survivors together? “The Simpsons,” of course, or at least as Anne Washburn has it in “Mr. Burns, a post-electric play.” Manbites Dog Theater’s elaborate staging boasts considerable talent and creativity, despite a script that could be tighter and an approach that could go deeper.
The first act is set in the near future after the electric grid has failed and all nuclear power plants have exploded. Survivors huddle around fires nightly, exchanging information, sharing food and fighting off marauders.
Seven desolate souls attempt distraction by reconstructing scenes and dialog from an episode of “The Simpsons” TV series. They act out parts and argue over correct lines as they eagerly contribute what they remember. That shared memory leads to a rebirth of society seven years later (act two), and to a new civilization’s unifying mythology 75 years later (act three).
Most audience members will have passing knowledge of the animated sitcom, now on home screens for nearly three decades. But Washburn relies heavily on fan-level familiarity and a specific awareness of one particular episode (1993’s “Cape Feare”) for maximum appreciation. She also gets caught up in her clever constructs in act two’s big production number and act three’s full-blown musical, both going on well beyond their thematic points.
Long-established performers help cover such flaws with their comedic, dramatic and musical talents, each playing multiple roles, including Simpson family members. Michael Brocki, Marcia Edmundson, Carly Prentis Jones, Julie Oliver and Geraud Staton each contribute engaging characterizations. Lormarev Jones deserves special mention for her moving survivor, Jenny, and her feisty, well-sung Bart. Derrick Ivey is equally outstanding for his shell-shocked survivor Gibson and his super-villain Mr. Burns, in addition to providing the impressively complex settings and act three’s over-the-top costumes.
Chuck Catotti’s lighting is convincing as lit by fire and candles, Jeff A. R. Jones’ choreography and fight direction add vivid movement and Bart Matthews’ original score is suitably silly and heroic as needed, aided by Emily Levinstone’s vocals.
Director Jeff Storer establishes a subtle mood of fear and dread beneath the humor in act one, signaling richer rewards to come. But acts two and three emphasize the parody and physical comedy, making mere entertainment of the darker implications Washburn wants to communicate.
Fans of “The Simpsons” are likely to enjoy the play the most, but even those unfamiliar with the series should be charmed and affected by the actors’ estimable contributions.
What: “Mr. Burns, a post-electric play”
Where: Manbites Dog Theater, 703 Foster St., Durham
When: 7:30 p.m. Oct. 24, 28-30, Nov. 1, 4-7; 2 p.m. Oct. 25, 31
Tickets: $12-$20 (students $5-$10; seniors/military $2 off)
Info: 919-682-3343 or manbitesdogtheater.org