Have you ever wondered what the world may look like in a post-apocalyptic setting? Or rather, how would our forms of entertainment appear without electricity, and only the faint memory of what our favorite television shows used to be? Well wonder no longer, because the University of Southern Maine’s theatre department has brought that futuristic and catastrophic thought to life. Mr. Burns: A Post-Electric Play, written by Anne Washburn and directed by guest director Stephen Legawiec, is the show chosen for the second half of the semester’s theatre season and is set to perform in repertory with Larissa Fasthorses’ The Thanksgiving Play, directed by Rachel Price Cooper.
Mr. Burns has a variety of topics that students and faculty alike have been talking about and working hard to portray correctly on the stage. It can be challenging to create a world that does not exist in our own reality, especially when the characters on stage are encountering these scenarios for the first time. Noam Osher, a senior here at USM, plays the character Matt and Mr. Burns. He recalls, “There are a lot of moments where the characters are trying to remember something, but they can’t quite grasp it; it makes it very hard to memorize when ‘like’ and ‘uhm’ are every other word.” Noam explains that the importance of storytelling is critical for this play. “Though many people see it as non-essential, it’s what everyone turns to to get through hard times. The play itself takes place in a very fictional, catastrophic setting. Trying to imagine putting yourself in that is pretty tough, and I don’t know if I’ve even done that yet, but it’s been fun. I think our troubles have brought us together as a cast.” Noam, who has performed in a variety of shows in past seasons, finds that his character Matt is a critical part of the show. “He is one of the main people who turns to storytelling to distract people a little bit from reality, and also give them hope.”
The three-act play begins in an unknown year, shortly after a non-specific apocalyptic event. Six survivors try distracting themselves from the catastrophic disaster by attempting to retell popular moments from pop culture, including the episode titled “Cape Feare” from the beloved show The Simpsons. The second act occurs seven years later, where a new member is added to the group of survivors. The now seven individuals have become a self-proclaimed theatre troupe, specializing in performing Simpsons episodes. The third act then takes an unexpected twist, jumping nearly 75 years later, and “Cape Feare” has become a familiar myth for the folks of this new society. Still without power and scrounging for supplies, this riveting act includes a musical element and more epic and serious undertones than the previous acts.
To reflect the lack of common clothes and supplies in act three, costume director Kevin Hutchins, with designs from costume designer Shaughnessey Gower, determined that the best way to display the idea of a post-apocalyptic environment to the audience was to use found-objects as clothing. Shaugnessey’s main goal was to track the evolution of storytelling during the show, Hutchins explains, in a way that the audience can see it. “That’s sort of why characters start in very simple day-to-day clothing in the first act. In act two, you see the characters starting to think about the past, but their memory of the episode begins to fade, the costumes reflect how their memory of the cartoon begins to shift. In the third act we are just thrust so far forward, 75 years, and we have to think about how much of the Simpsons these characters remember to then put on the show.” When it comes to found objects, Hutchins recalls:
“We had to simplify the language to see how these shapes live a bit larger in the space they take up. The characters may only remember minor things about the characters from the myth. For instance, Lisa is a big orange triangle and Marge is a big green tube. We also had to think about how we could incorporate the lack of technology and worked with a ton of unconventional materials to see how they would make costumes out of the things they find around them. We used a children’s play tunnel as a dress, loofahs to make a wig, ikea bags, cupcake wrappers, and we’ve done a lot more. For the more weathered and desperate look, when it comes to pieces that normally would be more finished, they look more crude, on purpose, to show that they may have only had a needle and thread. There’s a lot of fun things to spot. If you come to see it twice you’ll see things you didn’t see the first time, especially in act 3.”
Students enrolled in Hutchin’s costume practicum have been helping with this process. From sewing coffee filters to a white dress shirt to weathering odd t-shirts, the prac has been involved with many of the creativity and expression of Shaugnessey Gower’s designs. As always, all three practicums offered for theatre-focused students are involved in bringing all of these shows to life. Lighting practicum strung the lights and set the stage while stagecraft practicum built all set pieces and platforms, painted the rolling backgrounds, and artificially weathering the stone altars that are featured in the performance. While some of the tech students helped detail and construct many of the props, the designs and creativity behind them can be found in Sage Bartlett’s genius. As the props master and designer, Sage has worked relentlessly to be sure each prop and piece radiates the riveting nuclear energy that the show
requires. “It’s definitely been a challenge working on this show,” Sage says, “but the things that we’ve been able to create have been really interesting because there wouldn’t be a demand for them in a non-post-apocalyptic show, like the masks for act three.” The masks are, notably, one of Sage’s favorite props that they have constructed. “The masks were a collaboration between
me and Shaugnassey. I brought her renderings and plan to life, and took it in my own artistic direction.” The masks, modeled after the historic design of Venetian theatre, are used to portray The Simpsons characters in act three. Sage has worked props for shows in the past, but finds that this show has some unexpected challenges. “It is a very strange show; and I think the hardest part was coming together with everybody else in a cohesive way and figuring out exactly what the aesthetic and themes were for the show because it is so bizarre and strange, and can be taken in so many directions. We’ve actually changed the overall artistic design a few times.” Sage expresses their excitement in this show coming to life, and urges those who have any inkling of curiosity to get their hands on a ticket.
For one member of the cast, this production of Mr. Burns is not their first. Lucious Finston-Fox, a sophomore, takes the stage as Sam (and Scratchy in act three). It is his first time performing on the main stage at the University and details that the challenging aspects of the show here was changing his understanding surrounding the director’s design process. “I appreciate that Stephen Legawiec’s vision is different, but it’s weird to shift my perspective in a show where there’s already so little understanding of everything.” In terms of character development for his character Sam, Lucious claims that Sam changes the least among the other characters of the story. “In one of his first lines, he’s listing people he lost and he only lists two. The idea that this small-town sheltered boy dealing with the apocalypse is somewhat what he’s used to. Living in the woods, fending for himself… it’s something he’s used to, but now he’s got six other people to fend for.” When asked what he hopes the audience will gain from seeing this performance, Lucious says, “that they can get through everything. The end of the world doesn’t always have to be the end of you.”
Mr. Burns, A Post-Electric Play opens Saturday, November 12th. Noam Osher, featured earlier, claims that it’s very hard to describe this show, “so you just have to see it to understand it, and feel it.” It’s a spitfire, strange show that takes on a collaborative imagination that each actor portrays uniquely. You have four more chances to see this groundbreaking performance, so don’t miss out.
Show Dates and Times:
- Thursday, November 17, 2022, 7:30 PM
- Friday, November 18, 2022, 10:00 AM
- Saturday, November 19, 2022, 7:30 PM
- Sunday, November 20, 2022, 2:00 PM
Student tickets are $8, while general admission $16. Faculty tickets are $12. Visit the box office in Russell Hall or usm-theatre.ticketleap.com to purchase your tickets.