Outside the March and Starvox Entertainment's curious pop-culture spectacle slowly transforms into thrilling fare.
Last week, the Toronto Theatre Critics Association—an affiliation of professional critics from the Toronto Star, the Globe and Mail, the National Post, NOW Magazine, and Torontoist—announced our picks for the past year’s best stage offerings. Of the shows and the onstage and offstage talent recognized, two shows are still currently running in Toronto: the Mirvish production of the hit broadway musical Once, which has been extended until June 28; and Outside the March’s Canadian debut of Anne Washburn and Michael Friedman’s Mr. Burns, a post-electric play, which snagged the TTCA citations for Best Production and Best Design.
Yesterday, the Dora Mavor Moore Awards were also announced, and while Mr. Burns was shut out of the major categories, it did receive a nomination for Outstanding Costume Design.
The show has been receiving some rave reviews, but not universally; some Simpsons fans have bitterly complained on social media. And the incongruity between the TTCA and Dora recognitions might be puzzling. So what do you need to know going in to enjoy this “post-electric” play?
First off, Mr. Burns is not a comedy, nor is it (wholly) a musical. It’s a very serious effort by Washburn, who wrote the play and lyrics, to examine what might happen to society after our power runs out, and the world (North America at least) becomes riddled with irradiated death zones. In the play’s post-apocalyptic landscape of the future, the common shared experience of viewing The Simpsons becomes a way of preserving survivors’ pre-apocalyptic memories and, generations later, its knowledge and values. (Torontoist has already published a look at how treating The Simpsons as such might be the death knell for the show’s continued relevance.)
The first of the show’s three acts begins shortly after the end of the world, as traumatized survivors gather to share information, much of it dubious, about what’s happened. Wandering stranger Gibson (the typically excellent Damien Atkins) arrives with news of the slow decay cross-country—and to fill in some lines of a classic Simpsons episode, “Cape Feare,” that Matt (Colin Doyle) and Jenny (Tracy Michailidis) are trying to recall. Gibson also can sing a snatch of music from Pirates of Penzance that’s featured in the episode, and the entertainment value sparks some ideas in the disparate group.
Flash forward seven years later, and our survivors are eking out a living performing recreations of classic Simpsons episodes—along with some nostalgia-inducing “commercial” musical numbers. Scripts and lines from the show have become commodities, and other troupes are competing for the intellectual property and valuable batteries and goods that the survivors prize.
The third acts leaps much further into the future, and a new generation—one that’s never seen television first-hand—has turned the characters of The Simpsons, especially the title character’s power-hungry nuclear-power plant owner, which has a gruesome new relevance, into the basis for their society’s morality play. The cartoonish Sideshow Bob has morphed into a ghastly Mr. Burns (a chillingly effective Ishai Buchbinder), who Bart (Rielle Braid) must grapple with for survival.
It’s the play’s third act—featuring the all-musical morality play-within-a-play, with giant puppets, luminescent lit costumes, and wonderfully wrought masks—that is no doubt garnering its design accolades, though the experience overall of seeing the whole show lit and performed entirely “off the grid” is certainly impressive. Even the venue itself, usually known as Big Picture Cinemas, has been drastically transformed outside (to resemble Springfield’s Aztec Cinema, even on Google) and inside, where all lighting and sound is generated by the performers and apocalypse-appropriate methods.
It’s also the third act where several of the performers really get to shine. Core Outside the March company members—Doyle, Amy Keating, Sébastien Heins, and Katherine Cullen, who’ve starred in their past site-specific hits like Vitals and Passion Play—are all convincing as the harried survivors. But it’s the performers with musical backgrounds—Braid (Ride The Cyclone) as the affecting Bart (who we feel should have snagged at least a Dora nomination), Michailidis (founder of the Musical Works in Concert series) as the third act narrator, a high priestess Edna Krabappel, and Buchbinder—who really turns the knob up on the thrilling spectacle of the morality play. It’s a slow build to that gaudily impressive third act, where the cheap but clever sight gags and pop culture spoofs of “Cape Feare” have morphed into something resembling high opera. But so long as you’re not expecting Simpsons-style laughs-a-minute, or a full-blown Broadway-style musical thoughout, Mr. Burns is an immersive experience worth taking.