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Challenge Accepted: Bay Area Theaters Take Big Risks That Pay Off. 

Wednesday, Mar 11 2015
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American Conservatory Theater, San Francisco's flagship theater company, isn't exactly known as a purveyor of risky new plays. When it's not doing its annual A Christmas Carol or socially retrograde duds like Napoli!, it's producing myths and Brits. The company's leader, Carey Perloff, is a classicist at heart, and when she does select a new play or two for a season, it's often a tidy, feel-good show like Amy Herzog's 4000 Miles.

But every once in a while, ACT produces a new play that advances the art form. Enter Mr. Burns, a post-electric play, written by Anne Washburn and performed by an eight-person ensemble that in a single play masterfully deploys a range of dramatic styles.

Yes, that's the Mr. Burns of The Simpsons fame, and yes, all ye who grew up worshipping at the church of Homer each Sunday on Fox at the holy hour of 8 p.m. will be in hog heaven. The play begins with four campfire gatherers, who, dressed like hippies, hicks, and henchmen, attempt to remember, line by line and shot by shot, the episode that spoofs Cape Fear. (It's the one on the houseboat, with Sideshow Bob and all those rakes.) But if that sounds like dull stuff for drama, in Washburn's vision, the scene is every bit as urgent and cosmic as a culture's founding myths.

That's because, in this play, The Simpsons is a culture's founding myth. The huddled storytellers in the first act are nomads in a postapocalyptic America, one evidently created by nuclear disaster. They remember this episode's brilliant character-driven humor partly to repress the sadness of having lost everyone they know and the fear of ambush by other nomads; partly to create community out of shared experience (the rovers have known each other only days, at most); and partly out of the sheer joy of telling a good story.

In Act 2, set seven years later (it really helps to read the program notes before the show starts, as Washburn reveals context only obliquely), the urge to remember The Simpsons has become as commercial as it is artistic. The storytelling group now rehearses episodes of The Simpsons as best as it can remember, which is much less than in the first scene, while at war with other groups that bid for the same remembered lines of dialogue, all on a negligible budget. In short, they're a struggling theater company. The real focus here, though, is on the commercial breaks, which, sans irony, glorify imperfectly remembered pop songs and consumer products.

If Act 2 is nostalgia-qua-myth, Act 3, set 75 years later, is myth unmitigated. Here we are the audience to yet another telling of the same Simpsons episode. The houseboat is a complete theatrical set, and the characters are in full-body yellow. They sing their lines, though, and there's no trace of comedy; at this point, very little resembles the episode as remembered in Act 1. Bart is an epic hero, the lone survivor in his family after a drawn-out confrontation with a conflation of Sideshow Bob and Mr. Burns. In this part-opera, part-religious ritual, Bart must decide, in the face of unfathomable loss, whether and how to keep fighting and keep his humanity as he once knew it — a problem nearly identical to that faced by Washburn's characters in Act 1.

Mr. Burns is a paean to The Simpsons and to pop culture as a whole. It's a testament to humans' ability, and need, to make meaning and tell stories. It's the best new play ACT has done in a long time, and it's what San Francisco needs to see more of from the company.

Crowded Fire Theater has a very different aesthetic from ACT's: It produces only risky new plays. Its latest, Edith Can Shoot Things and Hit Them, written by A. Rey Pamatmat and deftly directed by Desdemona Chiang, certainly falls under that category. It follows two Filipino-American siblings — Edith (Nicole Javier), a BB-gun-wielding 12-year-old, and Kenny (Was Gabrillo), a gay 16-year-old on the brink of his first relationship, with uber-nerd Benji (Maro Guevara) — who live alone in the boondocks, abandoned by their parents. Yet this funny and tender drama is also consistent with American dramatic tradition: It's about creating home and family and revolting against authority, with a healthy dose of identity politics.

The sterling three-person ensemble shines even with lines that could be heavy-handed, such as, "I don't think we'll ever stop being scared" and, "Just be a little girl for a little while longer." Javier adroitly captures the title character's contradictions. She is a wise, mature adult, a tough-talking, trigger-happy maverick, and a terrified little girl. Pamatmat is particularly eloquent with the way Edith, or, as she prefers to be called, Ed, creates her own cosmology to explain the unexplainable: All her trials are mere "tests" that she, a straight-A student, must pass. Also extraordinary in this cast is Guevara as Benji, whose alternately hangdog and sassy comic timing never misses a beat.

Edith might not chart new theatrical ground with the same flashiness Mr. Burns, but in its own gentle way it's still radical. It extends the right to the classic American narrative to new characters.

It's about time.

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Lily Janiak

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