CHICAGO — One of the most unbearable things about the pandemic is the uncertainty: about what we can and cannot do, and the way our understanding of what is going on gets tangled in conflicting stories or collapses altogether. And then there is the dread about what will happen next.
Or at least that is what I was thinking as I watched this pandemic-era production of “Mr. Burns, a Post-Electric Play,” Anne Washburn’s 2012 apocalyptic phantasmagoria about hope, storytelling and “The Simpsons.” At Theater Wit in Chicago, Jeremy Wechsler, its longtime artistic director, is offering an expressive new staging that leans on the horror of the last 18 months to draw out the work’s fresh urgency. But he has also found new comfort in its meaning.
I saw “Mr. Burns” twice in the Before Times — in 2013, at Playwrights Horizons in New York, and, in 2015, which was Wechsler’s previous Theater Wit production. Like many critics, I was won over by Washburn’s agile, boisterous storytelling and her tangled, semi-redemptive vision of how humans would respond to the end of the world as we know it.
The plot is ingenious: In Act I, a group of people try to keep it together after a series of nuclear meltdowns by retelling the story of a single “Simpsons” episode: “Cape Feare,” a sendup of the movie “Cape Fear.” Seven years later, in Act II, those same characters, now an itinerant theater troupe, are recreating episodes of “The Simpsons,” commercials and hit songs. But they lose whatever unity they had and, in the closing scene, are gunned down by rivals. The sung-through third act begins 75 years later, with a ritual homage to the meltdown and a fantastical, grisly and surprisingly comedic version of “Cape Feare.”
Washburn and the composer Michael Friedman, who died of complications from AIDS in 2017, were trying to examine how pop culture and storytelling might survive after a disaster. To take a line from the play: “What will endure when the cataclysm arrives — when the grid fails, society crumbles and we’re faced with the task of rebuilding?”
Wechsler’s new production lands differently. And the pandemic isn’t the only threat it evokes. Take, for instance, climate change and all that comes with it: fire, heavy rain, droughts, people buying blocks of ice in a city with no electricity, gas stations running out of gas, power grid failure. “We have a larger sense of ourselves as being on precarious ground,” Washburn said in an interview.
An emblematic moment arrives at the end of Act I, when one character, Maria, crouched around the fire, shares an anecdote about someone she met at Walmart who courageously tried to shut down the plant. But as she goes on telling the story, it begins to seem as if he never made it to the plant at all: “It’s not knowing,” Maria recounts the unnamed character saying. From the safety of a nearby gas station, he dreams himself fleeing the generator, nuked, and dying. But he actually walks in the other direction, away from the plant.
Moments like this — as full of vivid, free-floating theories and fears as our current lives — make it fitting that “Mr. Burns,” which opened Sept. 8, was until recently the only Actors' Equity Association production in Chicago.
Theater Wit requires proof of vaccination and masks; the actors, who are unmasked, perform 10 feet away from the audience of the 99-seat house. But the attendees I saw didn’t seem fazed by the restrictions. And one of them, comparing Wechsler’s 2015 “Mr. Burns” with this one, said during a post-show discussion, “What was speculative became realistic.”
In an interview, Wechsler agreed. “Back then,” he said, “the play had a funnier, sci-fi spin and a hallucinatory, giddy feeling.”
He did not start the pandemic plotting to restage “Mr. Burns.” In March 2020, Theater Wit was presenting “Teenage Dick,” Mike Lew’s take on Shakespeare’s “Richard III.” Wechsler took the show online, but then he sank into a depression. “What surprised me was how quickly the profession could vanish,” he said.
Once the theater reopened to in-person audiences, Wechsler thought, it would need “something real, big, complicated and recklessly extravagant.” And he wanted that show to ask: What would theater need to provide in a post-lockdown landscape?
He thought of Washburn’s layered storytelling and how it might hit more closely now. “I became obsessed with it,” he said.
Although Wechsler has directed over 50 shows, restaging “Mr. Burns” felt different. He had never done a remounting in which the lives of artists, and culture at large, had changed so much, he said. This run is different from 2015 in many ways: It is the largest production in the theater’s history (with help from a $140,000 Shuttered Venue Operators Grant); and although a few actors reprised their roles, most of the cast was new, including Will Wilhelm, the first nonbinary actor to play Jenny.
The design team is mostly intact from the 2015 production, though the set and costumes in Act III are more of, as Wechsler put it, a “fever dream” this time. The clothes worn by “Simpsons” characters are made of comparatively wackier found materials like Amazon packaging and pieces of plastic buckets. Humorous frescoes of Marge Simpson as Dorothy in “The Wizard of Oz” and Homer crossing the Potomac River have been moved closer to the audience.
But the most marked changes are in the staging. In 2015, Wechsler set Act I in a forest; now, it opens on the characters huddled around a pile of burning chairs in a backyard. It is also set later in the year, with how people passed time during the pandemic in mind. “Act I is really, ‘How We Spent the Winter,’” he said.
Earlier productions I saw dragged at times in Act II, but Wechsler’s new staging of it is ragged and brisk. “There is a shared sense of a new normal and managing dreams, the things the characters talk about, like the fires and the grid going down, have already happened,” he said. “I wanted that ‘Let’s put on a show’ spirit in desperate circumstances.” He was inspired in part, he said, by things that he had previously taken for granted, such as friendly visits and birthday parties, becoming difficult during the pandemic.
Wechsler also updated the poignant and hilarious “Chart hits” medley, in which the actors perform (and flub) lines from pop songs. He added snippets from Billie Eilish, Lorde and Taylor Swift. Act III, too, has transformed: Its ceremonial theater piece seemed sharper, or maybe I understood better that we need the grandeur of a chanting masked chorus to communicate apocalyptic horror.
In that scene, the actors also used details from their lives during the pandemic. Leslie Ann Sheppard, who plays Bart Simpson, said in an interview: “We incorporated a little bit more of the coughing and ‘Stay away from me. We need to cover our faces.’”
During one striking moment of Act III, Jenny reads the names of people who have died. “When we first did the show in 2015, we would sing audience members’ names that were there that evening,” Wechsler said. “This was arresting in its way, but too anxiety-producing and flip after the last 18 months.”
Now the names include those in the script, as well as theater luminaries who have died — not just from Covid-19 — including the Chicago actor Johnny Lee Davenport and the Organic Theater founder Stuart Gordon.
Later in Act III, Mr. Burns brutally murders Homer, Marge and Lisa, and then Bart seems to kill the villain. But when the lights come on, Mr. Burns is not dead. The last moment reveals him pedaling more and more slowly on a stationary bike hooked up to a generator. It’s an image that “is uncertain,” Washburn said. “It can toggle more difficult or more heartening.”
In his production, Wechsler wanted to emphasize the positive. “Life is hard, and none of us is going to emerge unscarred,” he said. “How do we heal? The answer is just keep living.”
That moment, in 2015, ended with a blackout after a spotlight shone on Mr. Burns pedaling for a long time. Not now: Rather than close with that image, several colorful electric fixtures slowly descend from the ceiling as the house lights come on.
“We wanted to bring the audience in,” Wechsler said, “to show them we are in this together.”
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