Anne Washburn’s Mr. Burns, a Post-Electric Play is one of the most frequently performed plays of the last year. Now, in a production directed by A. Nora Long, it will run at Boston’s Lyric Stage through May 7.
Mr. Burns takes place after an unspecified apocalyptic disaster that has left the world without electricity. Survivors gather to tell a story, and together they recount and patch together—of all things—the “Cape Feare” episode of The Simpsons. The play opens soon after the disaster, the second act takes place seven years later, and the third act—which culminates in a full reenactment of the episode—takes place 75 years after that.
For the third act, the troupe is fully costumed as the Simpsons characters. The costumes have been handmade from whatever has managed to survive the 75 years that they’ve lived without electricity. This also dictates the need for an extra member on the creative team: mask maker.
Lauren Duffy, who mainly fancies herself a scenic painter, has designed and constructed the masks for this production. Working with director A. Nora Long and costume designer Amanda Mujica, she settled on Commedia dell’Arte as the style for the masks.
This, as it turns out, was right up Duffy’s alley. In 2007, while studying at Keene State College, Duffy spent a semester abroad in Florence, Italy. She was living on the same street as the mask shop of renowned mask maker Agostino Dessì.
“I asked him to teach me how to make them and he said no,” Duffy recalls with a laugh. “So I went back the next day and said, ‘Will you teach me how to make these masks?’ and he said no. And I was like, ‘No, you really have to teach me.’” Duffy had just wiped her computer and only had one photo of an example of her work to show him. Still, her persistence paid off and he told her to come back the next day.
Duffy apprenticed Dessì for about two months. “It was very funny because I would practice my Italian and he would just shake his head at me,” Duffy said. “He was one of the better people I interacted with because he would say, ‘Only Italian today,’ so I would have to hobble my way through our interactions with what little Italian I knew. I wrote some emails for him a few times, so it was a great kind of apprenticeship—a real, mutual benefit. And he’s making sure that his craft doesn’t die,” she added.
Duffy says that the Greek tragedy, high-art concept for the masks acts as a tool that functions to bring the world of the play a little bit further from reality. In traditional Commedia dell’Arte, there are recurring characters, which means that someone could walk into a theater and sit down and instantly recognize the characters. “They knew when Pantalones walked on stage, because his nose and eyebrows were always the same, and that’s very much like The Simpsons,” Duffy said. “You sit down and you know who is Homer and who is Marge, because she has big blue hair.”
Marge’s big blue hair, in this case, is another one of Duffy’s creations. Thinking about what would still be around 75 years after a disaster, Duffy settled on blue woven and braided rope. “This is someone that everyone recognizes, but what would it be made out of?” she said. “I spent a lot of time thinking about what’s left in this post-electric world.”
BURNS, A POST-ELECTRIC PLAY. RUNS THROUGH 5.7 AT THE LYRIC STAGE COMPANY, 140 CLARENDON ST., BOSTON. LYRICSTAGE.COM
Theater critic for TheaterMania & WBUR’s TheArtery | Theater Editor for DigBoston | film and music critic for EDGE Media | Boston Theater Critics Association.