Humor, absurdity abound in BareStage Productions’ ‘Mr. Burns, a Post-Electric Play’

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BareStage Productions is back in business with this year’s fall play, “Mr. Burns, a Post-Electric Play.” Directed by UC Berkeley senior Fleurette Modica, the play is a dark comedy written by Anne Washburn that takes place after global catastrophe and tracks a group of survivors’ continual preoccupation with the famed television show “The Simpsons.” A thoughtful and complex story about endurance and cultural mythos, “Mr. Burns” is tragic, ridiculous, yet deeply human. The ambitious production is a precarious balancing act of contrasting tones, but the talented students at BareStage Productions pulled it off.

“Mr. Burns” is a play in three acts. A group of survivors — Matt (Ariel Anderson), Jenny (Mae Cassady), Maria (Yuetong Zhang), Sam (Michael Carroll), Colleen (Mirelle Lindquist) and Gibson (Sam Truax) — entertain and comfort each other by recalling “The Simpsons” episode “Cape Feare.” Seven years later, the group, now joined by Quincy (Margaret Lee), works in the new entertainment industry, using their collective memories to piece together episodes of “The Simpsons” and adapting them for live onstage performance complete with commercials. The play explores this theme with special dexterity in the third act, which leaps forward 75 years and features Ananya Chawla as Edna Krabappel.

The ever-changing play is undeniably more challenging to interpret than a conventional narrative, and some of the production’s most interesting elements lie not so much in the story that is being told, but rather in the way it is being told. It is truly fascinating to see the in-play characters reimagine a familiar story from a familiar fictional universe; some of these changes are cleverly subtle while others are obvious, but the characters’ process of adaptation remains compelling as they establish a new sense of normalcy.

Of course, the smooth delivery of this nuanced story is facilitated by Modica’s commendable directing. Each act varies dramatically in setting, tone and intent, and the smooth creative decisions help the story remain natural despite the jarring leaps in time and space. A wonderful aspect of the production that audiences are sure to notice is the juxtaposition between the hilarious and the devastating, the ridiculous and the relatable. The audiences’ impulse to laugh at the characters’ absurdity is shadowed by the sobering circumstances that have rendered their behavior necessary.

What allows this production to reach new heights, however, is its superb cast. The cast delivered strong performances and believably portrayed each character through the acts’ temporal jumps. The tumultuous story throws these characters into states of desperation and despair, then into hilarious recreations of “Simpsons” scenes and the actors navigate these changing emotions effortlessly. Each scene is clearly dominated by lots of effort, practice and passion.

Anderson in particular has impeccable comedic timing, and his performance as Matt is filled with authenticity. He shines in the first act, making audiences feel as though they were looking in on a real conversation between real people. 

The cast also does a remarkable job portraying iconic characters from “The Simpsons.” Carroll is a memorable Mr. Burns in the third act, effectively embodying the character’s ominous demeanor. The actor makes Mr. Burns grand, terrifying and humorously dramatic. Sharing the spotlight is Lee, who shows off a lovely singing voice to capture the helplessness of a young, terrorized Bart Simpson. On top of it all, Truax can do an unbelievable Marge Simpson impression that cannot go without mentioning.

“Mr. Burns, a Post-Electric Play” is well-deserving of a watch: Thoroughly thoughtful, brilliantly imaginative and evidently the product of hours upon hours of hard work. In her director’s note, Modica hopes that audiences find the play “meaningfully entertaining and endlessly strange,” and with such a triumphant show, you probably will.

Joy Diamond covers theater. Contact her at [email protected].