“Mr. Burns, a Post-Electric Play,” the Unicorn Theatre’s fine new co-production with UMKC Theatre, is likely to divide audiences. If you’re the kind of person who likes to discuss and celebrate the communal and ritualistic power of live performance, you’ll be rewarded with expert acting and dizzying creativity.
But if you roll your eyes when faced with yet another evening of artists waxing rhapsodic about art, you might want to choose another show.
“Mr. Burns” is suffused with the experimental vibe of its origins. Playwright Anne Washburn began by gathering a group of performers and asking them to pluck plot points and dialogue from the iconic cartoon “The Simpsons” from their memories of watching the show.
Using recordings of that workshop, Washburn crafted a post-apocalyptic tale that starts out realistically, then spirals and sprawls across three acts and 82 years into a futuristic fugue on the nature of worship, community and entertainment.
The first act introduces five survivors of a recent and unexplained catastrophe that has killed wide swaths of the world’s population and wiped out the electrical grids. Without the energy infrastructure to keep them running, nuclear power plants are melting down and poisoning the atmosphere with radiation.
The group is passing the time by recounting an episode of “The Simpsons” that parodies the “Cape Fear” movies. But while they distract themselves with levity, they always keep one eye on the darkness, ready to pull their weapons on any approaching stranger.
In the second act, set seven years later, the group is still together, having transformed into a theatrical company something like those that traveled Elizabethan England. Intellectual property has become a monetary commodity, and society is re-arranging itself along ordered but sometimes brutally mercenary lines.
It’s impossible to describe “Mr. Burns” in much more detail without ruining its surprises. Suffice to say that the third act recycles fragments of Bart Simpson from the previous two acts, “Peter Pan” and Britney Spears’ sex-kitten pop, weaving them together with religious iconography as it shifts into full-blown musical mode.
The cast of “Mr. Burns” creates a strong sense of a makeshift family. Tim Scott’s Matt is something of a leader to the group, as he remembers the cartoon episode best. His portrayal of the character’s slightly fraying calm as he leads them through its retelling is convincing.
Manon Halliburton and Maya Jackson make similarly vivid impressions with clear-cut characterizations of people who have strong memories of a not-distant past of frivolity and comfort, facing a bleak and ominous future.
When the magnetic Matthew A. King arrives on the scene as a stranger who is unable to relate good news from his travels to other parts of the country, the dynamic of how he slowly integrates into the group demonstrates director Theodore Swetz’s deft hand working with the only basics you need: a bare-bones set and a cadre of talented performers.
Jessalyn Kincaid is solid as always, with a memorably ceremonial take on Bart as a mythic hero. Matt Rapport’s idiosyncratic Mr. Burns in the finale — a wild-eyed, lipstick-smeared madman straight out of the silent film era — is as unsettlingly amusing as the actor is committed to the portrayal.
The physical production is economical and smart, wisely editing away clutter. The four credited costume designers deserve special praise for the sculptural musical number outfits, which combine religious vestments and 3-D cartoon characters into a whole that makes perfect sense in the “Mr. Burns” world.
TV cartoon “The Family Guy” earns the derision it gets for appropriating “The Simpsons’” sensibility into a lame mishmash of unrelated pop culture references. Ironically, “Mr. Burns” throws a motley crew of similar references together as well, but the result feels appropriately off-kilter, not forced.
But the show isn’t hokey or jokey, despite that description. It’s never laugh-out-loud funny, though it’s often plenty droll. And while its style is almost naturalistic at first, it ends up somewhere from another world altogether by the final curtain.
Ultimately, some viewers will wish that Washburn had employed some of her free-association mad genius into a story about something other than extolling the glories of the theater itself (and it’s hardly alone today in preaching to the theatrical choir). If you’ve bought a ticket to the Unicorn, a company that’s easily the equal of any other in this nation, you’re probably already well aware of the art form’s transformative might.
“Mr. Burns” gets where it’s going by making up its own rules along the way. It would be nice if it focused that effective and genuine quirk outside of its own world.