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Theater Review: CATCO Opens 2021-22 Season With Masterful ‘Mr. Burns’

Richard Sanford Richard Sanford Theater Review: CATCO Opens 2021-22 Season With Masterful ‘Mr. Burns’Actors (from left to right front) Jonathan Putnam, Nicolette Montana, Acacia Duncan, (back left to right) Oluchi Nwokocha, Shauna Marie Davis, Eli Brickey and Brian Gray perform in CATCO’s upcoming production of Mr. Burns, a post-electric play Oct. 28-Nov. 14. Photo credit: Terry Gilliam
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After her first year as Artistic Director of CATCO – and introduction to the Columbus cultural scene – presenting some of the most ambitious, intriguing streaming productions, Leda Hoffmann welcomes audiences back to the theatre directing a potent, darkly funny production of Anne Washburn’s Mr. Burns: A Post-Electric Play

The immersive production uses three separate spaces to draw a future getting further away. For the first act, the audience gathers in the lobby surrounding a group of actors gathered around a trash can fire. They’re recounting – mostly Matt (Scott Douglas Wilson) and Jenny (Nicolette Montana) at first, but soon Maria (Acacia Duncan) and Sam (Brian Gray) – the plot to The Simpsons episode “Cape Feare.” 

This act – “in the very near future” – shows us the aftermath of a nebulous power grid shut down and drives two things home: the first thing we humans do in a crisis is find each other. The second thing we do is tell stories.  

The introduction of Gibson (Jonathan Putnam) – and after some preliminary searching and standoffishness, the group rapidly absorbing him and sharing names and ages of people they all want to find – and the benign presence of Colleen (Oluchi Nwokocha), silent and shrinking into a blanket also reinforce we’re seeing a future that is haunted, followed by death but the dog-eat-dog, dehumanizing moments aren’t what’s most important. We get to watch how people continue to live

The first act sings with a percussive musicality. Wilson, as good as I’ve ever seen him, tumbles through digressions and revisions of this Simpsons episode like a cross between a beat poet and a gourmand recounting his favorite meal, laughing at the memory and simultaneously trying to get it right. The rat-a-tat timing of Montana and Duncan’s interjections creates as much suspense as the sudden silence and movements by Gray patrolling the perimeter.  

Actors Eli Brickey (front), Brian Gray, Oluchi Nwokocha and Shauna Marie Davis (back left to rifght) perform in CATCO’s upcoming production of Mr. Burns, a post-electric play Oct. 28-Nov. 14. Photo credit: Terry Gilliam

The way the characters revel in this shared experience, this pleasant memory that time has stripped away from them, trying to amuse each other but also to get it right, to honor what they’ve loved sets up the beating heart of the play and works as a metaphor for theater and life without beating us over the head with it.  

The use of The Simpsons as a flashpoint for these people, for this new society, is brilliant. One of the last artifacts of the mainstream monoculture kicked into high gear by radio and television that almost everyone agreed on, the show underlines how interconnected our communication is, how interconnected our society is, by putting in our faces the million references, the accumulation of knowledge required even to have a conversation. All language is metaphor; just as Groening’s cartoon amplified that to absurdity, Washburn’s play and Hoffmann’s production dig into the consequences of trying to reconstruct language and history when most of the building blocks are ripped away. 

Those ideas about language never get too abstract here. One of the centerpieces of the first act is a remarkable piece of storytelling from Duncan’s Maria where she recounts someone whom she met going on a Sisyphean journey to refuel the generators at a nuclear power plant, underlined by, “he said: I think I can handle anything if I know what it is. I just can’t manage the dread.” Those punches underscore how serious the situation is and offset the laughs and the references. 

Putnam’s sudden interjection of Sideshow Bob’s line “I’ll stay away forever” and a discussion of what that means reminded me of pop culture tribalism, especially in the late ‘90s and early ‘00s given my age, where the right reference deployed at the right time meant this person was “in.” That sequence sets up the dazzling second act – moved into Studio 2 – where we watch these same people, augmented by an electrifying Shauna Davis as Quincy, seven years later, mounting a theatrical production of that same Simpsons episode, still without electricity.  

There’s great joy watching these characters – Nwokocha’s Colleen, having found her voice, fitting into the director role – refine both their retelling of “Cape Feare” and find ways to bring in other aspects of the older life that mattered to them. The rhythms between the cast don’t have the same hard-edged beat as the first act; they feel more organic and lived in. Montana does double duty as choreographer and actor and that choreography shines in the second and third acts: a dazzling medley of early ‘00s hits like “Izzo” and “Toxic” called “Chart Hits,” brilliantly evokes strong emotions as we see how these people have blended together without feeling too “perfect,” and featuring a searing solo turn from Davis. 

We watch these people not only argue passionately about points of plot and electricity-free stagecraft and we also see them give space for one another’s feelings, most prominently around a devastating meltdown Putnam delivers as Gibson and a shuddering reminder of the darkness outside delivered beautifully by Montana’s Jenny. 

Actors (front) Shauna Marie Davis, (middle left to right) Oluchi Nwokocha, Jonathan Putnam, (back left to right) Acacia Duncan, Nicolette Montana, Brian Gray and Scott Douglas Wilson perform in CATCO’s upcoming production of Mr. Burns, a post-electric play Oct. 28-Nov. 14. Photo credit: Terry Gilliam

75 years in the future – and in the more spacious Studio One – we see the main cast in brown robes and masks, implying some sort of cult or religious sect. A ritualistic reading of the names from the notebook in the beginning is sung.  

This leads to the most sophisticated retelling of this Simpsons episode technically and – as human nature and the co-opting of culture by larger structures will do – less nuanced, more crystallized. Wilson’s marvelous, terrifying melding of the Sideshow Bob and Mr. Burns characters terrorizes the family of Homer (Gray), Marge (Nwokocha), Lisa (Davis), and Bart (Eli Brickey, appearing for the first time in that third act), flanked by Edna Krabappel (Montana), Itchy (Putnam), and Scratchy (Duncan). These voices, with lush harmonies but layered in dissonance and worry from Michael Fridman’s intriguing score (lyrics are by Washburn) also have piano accompaniment from James Blackmon where everything before was a capella. 

The play is a marvel of construction – the third act features call backs to the first, with Duncan’s cultist working “Feets don’t fail me now,” a line with roots in the racist comedies starring Stepin Fetchit and reclaimed as part of the hook of Parliament’s “One Nation Under a Groove” alongside a reprise of Putnam’s Itchy and Duncan’s Scratchy roaring through Gilbert and Sullivan’s “Three Little Maids” with the eerily appropriate lines “Everything is a source of fun / Nobody’s safe for we care for none / Life is a joke that’s just begun” given a darker tint. 

Like the best Simpsons episodes, Mr. Burns bulges with references and easter eggs but in the best sense: I felt a frisson of delight whenever I caught one – as I write this, the example jumping to my mind is Wilson delivering the play’s Sweeney Todd nod “Life has been kind to you” – but it didn’t bog me down looking for them. More, nothing felt tacked on or inessential. Everything adds to a piece I wish I could find the time to see again. And unlike some of what I like that’s hermetic or “inside,” my partner and I spent the next hour after seeing this performance not only chewing on the themes but rattling off friends who don’t see much theater but would love this. 

If Mr. Burns points the way to a revitalized version of one of Columbus’ storied institutions, it suggests an extremely bright future. It’s a potent reminder of what theater can do so well: reminding us of our shared humanity. It hits maybe harder in the middle of a pandemic, when safety precautions are necessary and enforced, and it reminds us how good it feels to laugh and cry with each other in a room. 

Mr. Burns: A Post-Electric Play runs through November 14 with performances at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and 2 p.m. Sunday. For tickets and more information, visit catco.org.

Actors (from left to right) Acacia Duncan, Scott Douglas Wilson and Jonathan Putnam perform in CATCO’s upcoming production of Mr. Burns, a post-electric play Oct. 28-Nov. 14. Photo credit: Terry Gilliam
Actors (front left to right) Brian Gray, Jonathan Putnam, (middle left to right) Acacia Duncan Nicolette Montana, (back left to right) Shauna Marie Davis, Scott Douglas Wilson and Oluchi Nwokocha perform in CATCO’s upcoming production of Mr. Burns, a post-electric play Oct. 28-Nov. 14. Photo credit: Terry Gilliam
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