Move over, Hamilton, and give Mr. Burns some room. Okay, Anne Washburn’s brilliant Mr. Burns: A Post-Electric Play is not likely to appear on Broadway anytime soon, but if it’s vibrant, intellectually challenging, and dynamically engaging theater you are looking for, look no further than the little Studio Theater at UCSB, where an all-star cast drawn from the BFA acting program is delivering a terrific ensemble performance of what is unquestionably one of the most stimulating new scripts of the last 10 years. It’s unconventional in the extreme, and it zigzags all over the discursive map, but even across three very disparate acts, Mr. Burns is never less than thrilling.
We start out overhearing a group of people sitting around a fire, trying to remember the plot and jokes of a well-known episode of The Simpsons called “Cape Feare.” Matt (Jeremy Scharf) takes the lead, prompting the others to help him out when his memory lapses. The dialogue at this point — shared by Jenny (Cordelia Watson), Maria (Amanda Lawson), Sam (Cooper Bruhns), and Colleen (Maddie Martin) — feels loose and relaxed, and the students play it in pitch-perfect casual-conversation mode. But when newcomer Gibson (Zachary Macias) shows up, the tone suddenly shifts; at first the characters are violently suspicious and then anxiously solicitous of Gibson as they rattle off the names of friends and relatives they hope he may have seen. The first of the show’s many abrupt shifts in tone sets a pattern of instability. Whenever it feels like the script has reached a bedrock of reality, the bottom drops out revealing another layer of existence.
Act II takes place seven years later, with the action veering between a hilarious send-up of regional-theater ego conflicts and a more desperate paranoia about basic survival. There’s a magnificent mash-up song that the entire cast sings in and around the dismantled hulk of a red convertible, foreshadowing more musical matter to come. In the wild conclusion, the troupe delivers a sinister tragic opera with the Simpson family cruelly menaced by a supernatural and scary Mr. Burns along with Itchy and Scratchy. This segment, which is almost entirely sung and is accompanied by a three-piece band, has to be seen to be believed. The whole night is as much fun as theater gets, and I can’t recommend it highly enough.
At UCSB’s Studio Theater, Sat., Mar. 4. Shows through Mar. 12.