In a near-future scourged by nuclear fallout, these few humans, banded together, probably look a lot like humans of the far past: they huddle around a fire in the dark, telling stories. The main story they’re telling is a certain episode of The Simpsons, called “Cape Feare” — a riff on a film that’s a remake of a film that’s an adaptation of a novel. How this already intertextual story continues to evolve, across 80 years of the future, is the through-line of Anne Washburn’s smart, primal, brilliantly strange Mr. Burns, A Post-Electric Play. Reba Short directs an agile, game-for-anything ensemble at Mad Horse.
We open with the flicker of flames in an oil drum, the pale white of headlamps, and the tall shadows of Matt (Jake Cote), Jenny (Shannon Campbell), and Maria (Allison McCall), as they remember the death threat written in ketchup, the “Die Bart Die” chest tattoo. Dressed in flannels and vests, they sit at the foot of a tilty wooden shanty with mismatched siding, moving in and out of the firelight (lovely lighting design by Corey Anderson). Barely visible, Sam (Corey Gagne) sometimes intones a Southern-tinged phrase out of the shadows; another companion, Colleen (Marie Stewart Harmon) stays at a traumatized distance in the darkness.
Their ragged group’s Simpsons-telling is loose and colloquial, and the cast, led by Cote’s Matt and his giddy impersonations, paces it impeccably, with a natural, fluid momentum and a tangible pleasure in the telling. But despite the survivors’ laughter, anxiety is never far, and Short’s ensemble turns the mood on a dime. When they first hear a newcomer, Gibson (Brent Askari), out in the dark, laughter drops away into a practiced survival mode, which is as quickly replaced by a stoic sadness as they discuss where Gibson has been and what he’s seen. The ensemble conveys the wreckage of their characters’ circumstances with restraint, but with enough gravity to let us understand why these survivors so eagerly shine their headlamps on Gibson for an impromptu rendition of Gilbert and Sullivan’s “Three Little Maids.”
Seven years later, both the survivors’ social system and their relationship with story have changed. Now, story is their professional livelihood: Colleen is the director of their roving Simpsons theater troupe. Here, there’s much to appreciate in the ensemble’s “let’s put on a show” camaraderie and squabbling, and in the wit of Janice Gardner’s scavenger-minded costume design — a tower of small blue plastic crates for Marge’s “wig”; lengths of orange poly rope attached to a stocking cap for Sideshow Bob’s dreads. And Gagne doing Homer’s voice, in construction-hat baldness, is priceless. Washburn has some sly moments here, especially in the troupe’s “commercials,” and in a medley of oldies by 50 Cent, Lady Gaga, and Britney Spears — the ensemble’s low-fi performance of which, completely sans irony, is simply awesome.
What happens 75 years after that is a leap both inevitable and unnerving. This production succeeds in conjuring a time at once new to us and deeply old, a mood at once funny and eerie, and a spooky aesthetic that straddles Greek tragedy, opera, rap mash-up, vaudeville, passion play, and Punch-and-Judy show. I have some questions about how the tone of ending is pitched, but overall and overwhelmingly, this show is an exhilarating, beautifully performed revelation. With intelligence, moxie, and a kind of innocence, Mad Horse’s production of Mr. Burns reminds us how crucial stories are, if we want to survive.
Mr. Burns, A Post-Electric Play | By Anne Washburn; score by Michael Friedman; lyrics by Anne Washburn; directed by Reba Short; produced by Mad Horse Theatre Company, 24 Mosher St., South Portland | Through May 21 | $23, $20 seniors (pay-what-you-can 5/11) | www.madhorse.com
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