First, let me say that next time I agree to see and review four shows (all running over two hours – and some even more) in the same week while moving apartments and working a full-time job, someone remind me that I’m getting to be an old man. My apologies to the cast and crew of MR. BURNS – a post electric play; there’s no way I can fairly review what I saw today given the level of exhaustion I was experiencing. I even had to bail on the final act because of my work schedule.
First, a recap of the plot: Something bad has happened and there’s no electric. We shuffled into the black box space at Xavier University, led by ushers and technical director Joe Leonard, all armed with flashlights. Around a camp fire, a group of survivors of whatever happened re-tell the story of “The Simpsons” episode, “Cape Feare.” This episode is a remake of the Robert DeNiro film, “Cape Fear,” which is a remake of a Robert Mitchum film, which is an adaption from a novel. Following me so far?
Act Two sees that same group of characters, now – seven years later – as a theatre troupe who performs a live stage version of the Simpsons episode in a highly competitive market. Finally, Act Three is set 75 years later is apparently an all-out bonanza of a production of the episode featuring masks and singing somewhat in the tradition of a Greek tragedy (or that’s at least what my friend and critic, David Lyman, indicated. He told me he was sorry I missed it. I am too, but I’m also glad I was able to sneak in a nap before my 8 hour late night shift.)
Director Stephen Skiles uses a good bit of his department’s real estate to tell the story, literally moving the audience from the black box to the theatre wing (smartly lit by Joe Beumer; I really thought we were getting natural light until the final blackout) to the Gallagher Student Center main stage theater. I believe Skiles is a genius; I’ve never seen anyone do so much the resources and talent he has to work with. Don’t misunderstand, many of the students in Xavier’s Theatre program are very talented (you can see two of his graduates in the professional equity production of FLY BY NIGHT at Ensemble Theatre right now) but he also often has students who are double majoring in history or political science or chemistry or education. And yet, he boldly stages productions in a way that maximizes his talent pool while – more importantly – educating them. But not only does educates his students about the on-stage craft, but the backstage technical aspects as well by giving them all robust opportunities to try on various hats. And I dare say he also educates the audience. Very subtly, too. I really am a huge fan of the way he has conceived and administers his program.
This production is not without faults; some of the acting is quite good. I especially liked the work of Andrew Leonard, Kelsey Schwarber, and Catherine Sholtis. But there were some grating moments of emotional expression, especially in Act Two that had no build or authenticity. The play itself is problematic in its wordiness, too. It’s billed as a dark comedy; it wasn’t all that funny to me. While the premise is intriguing, the playwright, Anne Washburn, wanders around the material in a way that’s just too weird for my tastes. Others will love it.
Here’s the thing – if you love the Cincinnati Fringe Festival and cannot get enough of the weirder options presented there, then this is a show for you. And you’re in luck . . . you can still go tomorrow afternoon at 2pm!
Mr. Burns – a post electric play runs one more performance tomorrow afternoon, September 9th at 2pm. Tickets and more info can be found here.