Montgomery Playhouse’s ‘Mr. Burns’ is dystopian chaos ripe for our times

A black comedy like nothing you have seen before.

Anne Washburn’s Mr. Burns: A Post-Electric Play is a daring and unusual choice for a community theater. In past productions, audiences and critics have either REALLY loved the show or REALLY hated it. Chances are, you too will have an extreme reaction to the dystopian black comedy. Because it really is like nothing you have seen before.

Justine Summers, Alyssa Houde, Rebecca Sears, Marnie Kanarek, Spencer Pilcher in Montgomery Playhouse’s production of ‘Mr. Burns: A Post-Electric Play.’ Photo by Patrick Stoll.

The premise of the show is this: a nuclear disaster has recently befallen the United States. The few survivors are now prowling the nation, gathering in small groups for safety. Food and housing are in short supply, and in Montgomery Playhouse’s spirited production, the action takes place around a woodsy campsite.

How do you pass your time when everyone you know has died and civilization has come to a screeching halt? Apparently, by talking about The Simpsons.

The long-running TV cartoon starring Bart, Homer, Marge, and Lisa is at the center of Mr. Burns: A Post-Electric Play (Yes, the title is a reference to that Mr. Burns. Excellent!). Specifically, the Simpsons episode entitled “Cape Feare,” which is an homage to the two Cape Fear films starring Robert De Niro as a psychopathic rapist in the 1991 version, and Robert Mitchum in the 1962 original.

You will learn a lot about these movies and the “Cape Feare” episode of The Simpsons if you see this play. And that is where things get weird: Because one conversation about The Simpsons in Act One turns into the collective memories of an entirely new generation by the end of the play. Mr. Burns is produced in three acts separated by two ten-minute intermissions, and it would be difficult to stage the show without both intermissions, since the time and characters change drastically between acts. Act Two jumps forward by seven years where our friends from Act One are now part of a troupe that travels the American wasteland performing Simpsons episodes, and Act Three… well, I’ll let you experience that for yourself. Buckle up and get ready.

Rebecca Sears, Rob Gorman, Marnie Kanarek, Noah Rich (center), Matthew Provance, Justine Summers, Kyle Sprankle, Leena S. Dev in Montgomery Playhouse’s production of ‘Mr. Burns.’ Photo by Patrick Stoll.

It’s a lot of material to handle and Director Matt Bannister pulls it off with aplomb. The top-notch cast is 100% invested in the material and attacks it wholeheartedly. The show spills forth with tight pacing allowing you to fully immerse yourself in this crazy world. The only part that left me stumped was the end of Act One. In the final scene, Rob Gorman performs a song from The Mikado for the others around the campfire. The song was really well performed (Gorman has some great acting chops), but the act ended very abruptly leaving me wondering when the house lights rose if I had missed something in the plot.

Spencer Pilcher dominates Act One with stories about The Simpsons. He gives off a very guy-at-a-college-party-telling-stories vibe that I totally bought into. If you ever find yourself stuck in a post-apocalyptic wasteland with nothing to do, this is the guy you want to run into. (Pilcher also does a wicked Homer Simpson impersonation in Act Two.) Gorman, Marnie Kanarek, and Justine Summers also give impressive performances in Act One.

Alyssa Wellman Houde is a nice addition to the second act, while Noah Rich and Becca Sears dominate the third act. Rich’s well-acted monologue brings the tension of the show to a visceral climax. He earns every ounce of the audience’s attention. Sears demonstrates clever acting chops and a lovely singing voice. In addition to the monologues of Rich and Sears, Act Three contains several musical numbers, many composed by the late Michael Friedman (composer of Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson). Music Director Matthew Dohm weaves together an assortment of pop classics and new compositions by Friedman that punctuate much of the third act.

Rocky Nunzio stands out in the ensemble — a presence impossible to ignore, making you wish he had a bigger role in the show. Stephanie Hyder’s costumes and Matt Vance’s set are minimal but effective. Adrienne King (choreography) and Mallory Shear (fight choreography) ensure that several fight and dance scenes are performed safely.

Mr. Burns: A Post-Electric Play premiered in 2012 at DC’s Woolly Mammoth Theatre, so it is nice to see the show return to its DMV roots. And if 2022 isn’t the year to embrace dystopia, I don’t know what is.

Running Time: Two hours and ten minutes including two ten-minute intermissions.

Mr. Burns: A Post-Electric Play plays through Sunday, January 23, 2022, at The Kentland Arts Barn — 311 Kent Square Road in Gaithersburg, MD. One streaming performance will be available on Sunday, January 23, at 7:30 PM. For tickets ($20–$22), call the box office at (301) 258-6394 or go online.

Parties interested in the previously announced streaming performance may reach out to cassandra@montgomeryplayhouse.org

COVID Safety: Patrons are required to present a vaccination card or a negative COVID-19 test in order to attend live performances.

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