Two Local Theater Companies Explore Brave New Worlds

Luminous Theatre’s “Mr. Burns” and In Tandem’s “Carnival” tell very different stories in meticulously crafted environments.

For God’s sake, let us sit upon the ground
And tell sad stories of the death of kings….

–Shakespeare’s Richard II

Why do we tell stories? Where do they come from? Why do we desperately cling to them after centuries have passed? And how will Sideshow Bob finally enact his bloody revenge upon that scourge of a 10-year-old, Bart Simpson.

These are some of the many questions provocatively posed and gleefully answered in Luminous Theatre’s dazzling, head-spinning production of Mr. Burns, a Post-Electric Play, which opened this weekend.

Anne Washburn’s play has been something of a cause célèbre among a certain breed of theater folk since it first appeared in 2012. And for good reason. It’s both a gleeful mashup of beloved pop culture tropes, and a profound meditation on the nature of cultural memory and the importance of shared stories.

To date, productions of Mr. Burns have taken place in conventional theater spaces, but director Leda Hoffman likes to think outside the Black Box. She staged Margaret Atwood’s adaptation of Homer (the other one), The Penelopiad, in the playground under the Holton Street viaduct, where the huge swings could stand in for ships tossing on the wine-dark sea. Here, she sets the post-apocalyptic scene in the appropriately scruffy yard and interior of a Riverwest warehouse.

Kelly Doherty, Rachael Zientek, James Carrington, and Nick Narcisi.
Photo by Jason Fassl.

There is, in fact, something Homeric about the opening scene. Six people gather around a fire, desperately trying to remember the details of a half-remembered story. But the tale they piece together is not of Greek heroes or the death of kings, but of Season 5, Episode 2 of The Simpsons, otherwise known as “Cape Feare,” a hilarious satire of the 1962 Hollywood thriller and its 1991 Martin Scorsese remake. These folks are not, we discover, friends on a weekend campout, but survivors of a global apocalypse, armed against intruders, and keen to hear news about the latest nuclear power plant to experience a meltdown.

They are also keen to remember the details of “Cape Feare,” everything from the ominous motif of the original Bernard Herrmann score to the precise tattoos on Sideshow Bob’s knuckles, a reference to another nail-biting thriller starring Robert Mitchum, Night of the Hunter. This is the “post-electric” wasteland of Mr. Burns, a world sent back to its cultural infancy, and survivors creating shared stories from shards of a half-remembered world. Civilization’s hard drive has been erased, and Washburn’s play shows how we might rebuild it in a society in which human memory is the sole instrument of cultural preservation, and human speech its only conduit.

This idea lands with eerie power as Gibson (Dylan Bolin) happens on the group. After they gain each other’s trust, the survivors go through what has become a necessary ritual—sharing names of the loved-ones they have presumably lost to see if Gibson has encountered any of them on his journey. Without phones, databases, or any electronic records, the only proof of another’s existence is a name written in a notebook.

From here, Washburn jumps ahead seven years, when the recreation of pop culture memories has become an industry of sorts. Roving bands of players compete for audiences, trade for dialogue that can be incorporated into their carefully recreated sit-com scenes and commercials. It’s Mad Max with one-liners instead of gasoline, and “Cape Feare” has become the most coveted story of all.

Then to the far future—a 75-year jump cut to a world in which that Simpson’s episode (richly embellished over the years) has somehow become the greatest story ever told. And it’s quite a story, a ritual/musical production number which defies description. You have to be there. And should be.

Rachael Zientek, Jordan Gwiazdowski and Hannah Ripp-Dieter in “Mr. Burns, a Post-Electric Play.”
Photo by Jason Fassl.

If you aren’t, you’ll miss Jordan Gwiazdowski’s star turn as the show’s villain, a mustachioed madman who cranks up the melodrama. You’ll miss Rachel Zientek’s touching final song, and the revelation that Bart Simpson can be a heart-stopping tragic figure. And you’ll miss a hilarious mash-up of cheesy pop-song routines, danced with the kind of spandex-gold-lamé-tiger print commitment that will haunt your Solid Gold Dancer dreams. And, as they say in the infomercials, much, much more.

This is clearly a labor of love for Hoffman and the scrappy Luminous Theatre. Mr. Burns is a show with a large cast and significant production demands. It’s a fitting match. For just like the survivors in Washburn’s story, Hoffman and the actors and the technicians and artists behind Mr. Burns have built a strange and miraculous world from the ground up, and created an experience that just might be fondly remembered seven, and even 75 years into the future.

In Tandem Theatre’s final show of the season is equally ambitious—if a little more conventional. To stage Michael Stewart’s and Bob Merrill’s 1961 musical, Carnival, director Jane Flieller has assembled a large, talented cast, and turned the In Tandem lobby into a carnival midway of its own. But the real pleasures are onstage. Choreographer Karl Miller orchestrates a handful of appealing dance numbers that make the most of the intimate space. There are a few big-sound choral numbers, as well (music direction by Josh Robinson), not to mention an assortment of stilt-walkers, strong-men, and other carnival denizens.

Steve Koehler and Susan Wiedmeyer in In Tandem’s “Carnival.”

The story is a love quadrangle set against the backdrop of a down-on-its-luck carnival in 1920s France. Schlegel (David Ferrie) tries to keep his troupe together while finances grow thin. Jacquot and Paul (Nathan Marinan and J. Keegan Siebken) contemplate taking their puppet show on a different road. And womanizing magician Marco the Magnificent (Steve Koehler) tries to convince his assistant Rosalie (Beth Mulkerron) that she’s the only one for him. Into this cynical stew comes Lili (Susan Wiedmeyer), an wide-eyed innocent looking for a job. Marco sees her as a new conquest, and the games begin—on and off the midway.

The song soloists are also first rate—whether they are high-spirited, comic turns like “Magic, Magic” or big, heart-on-sleeve ballads like “She’s My Love” (sung dynamically by romantic lead Siebken). But the show’s greatest charm is Lili and the puppets. Wiedmeyer has a lovely, gentle soprano that shines in the show’s familiar hit, “Love Makes the World Go Round.” And her interactions with Marinan and Siebken—the humans behind hand-puppets Carrot Top, Renardo, Margueritte, and the hilarious sad sack walrus, Horrible Henry—are full of tenderness and delight.

In fact, it’s hard to imagine these gentle scenes playing in a big, Broadway theater. Which makes this cozy production of a classic—if too-little-seen—musical all the more essential.



Paul Kosidowski is a freelance writer and critic who contributes regularly to Milwaukee Magazine, WUWM Milwaukee Public Radio and national arts magazines. He writes weekly reviews and previews for the Culture Club column. He was literary director of the Milwaukee Repertory Theater from 1999-2006. In 2007, he was a fellow with the NEA Theater and Musical Theater Criticism Institute at the University of Southern California. His writing has also appeared in American Theatre magazine, Backstage, The Boston Globe, Theatre Topics, and Isthmus (Madison, Wis.). He has taught theater history, arts criticism and magazine writing at Marquette University and the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.