Some extra information from the KCSA board:
  • Mr. Burns is a resident production (Illinois Theatre) and ran two weekends: from Oct 13-23.  The play was incredibly successful, selling out or nearing capacity on quite a few nights.  Most of our ushering spots were taken up as well!
  • You may find a compact synopsis here if you haven't seen the show.
  • Many thanks to our new website contributor, Colin Harmony, for attending the show and writing up this wonderful review!  We hope to feature more content like this in the future.  In particular, if you're a KCSA member or Krannert staff member and are interested in being interviewed for a blog segment, we'd love to hear from you!  Please email us at kcsarocks@gmail.com.

Mr. Burns, a post-electric play is the kind of production that makes you thankful to be in an audience when watching it, taking in all the exasperated chuckles and hushed interjections that come with each development on the stage.

Starting off in a near-apocalyptic “near future”, the play opens on a group of survivors huddling by a fire. Talking just to talk, keeping up a thread to keep sheer terror abeyant, the survivors feverishly attempt to faithfully piece together the plot of a Simpsons episode that parodies Martin Scorsese’s version of Cape Fear, itself a remake of an earlier film. They find solace and control in getting lines from the episode down pat, and consequently begin to draw out lines from more episodes.  

Through the passage of years, recollections become renditions. These renditions slip past the bounds of ostensible entertainment, approaching the status of an article of faith. Blended memories of TV commercials and song lyrics become coveted source material for stage numbers that function as essential, life-vindicating acts. Before we are suddenly struck with the final horror at the close of Act II, we hear a final question, voiced obliquely, addressing the consequences of such commitment: “What if we picked the wrong religion? We’ll just make god madder and madder.” Beyond this, we hear no more. Act III presents an ideal achieved. But at what cost?

Sound and set design develop in tandem with the play. When we first step into Colwell Playhouse to watch the play, we’re immersed in night, sweet and solemn. After the audience is struck with the jarring reveal that the people sitting by the fire aren’t out in the wilderness for a good time, we readjust our perceptions of the environment, seeing the survivors as exposed to the elements. Beyond the cracking fire, we hear a snap of a twig, the shuffle of something unseen. A droning bass note emerges from the night and stays there, heralding a certain, incipient doom. As in danger as the principals are, they are still on Earth, in an environment that we feel we can, for the most part, readily identify. 

As time carries the survivors farther from the society they once lived in, the set becomes that of a stage within a stage, a world of artifice that, in being treated like life, becomes the real deal. The set changes are built into the proceedings of the play, drawing attention to that very artifice. The rooms that house the action in the final two acts are implacable; seemingly unmoored from the world, we can only guess at what lies beyond them. The portentous bass from the first act sustains through much of the second act, attenuating any link we might desire to identify between shelter and safety. There’s a sense that, should one of the set room wall panels collapse, or the digitized canopy of stars behind the boat shatter, we might glimpse some stygian nightmare beyond. 

The cast is both collectively and individually expert in conveying the stages of departure that the survivors, and ultimately the generations that follow them, arrive at. The principals take the initial stunned terror they convey in Act I and give it a bend, shaping it into a zealous desire for the perfection of their craft. Jordan Coughtry’s portrayal of Gibson is a standout, a nuanced depiction of a person who has no choice but to fight to transfigure bottomless despair and paranoia into something that provides precarious foundation. The switch-on-a-dime dancing sequences, with their breakneck mania, and the songs sung during them, which consist of thin interpolative slices of pop culture artifacts sandwiched together, are without a doubt the comic and virtuosic peak of the play. These performances comprise our foremost thoughts after we walk out of the theater, and not only because of their discursive and wild nature; they leave such an imprint because they carry within them the crux of the play, showing the highest stakes placed in Art as a vehicle for everything that moves and informs us.