Working with "Mr. Burns" at TheatreLab




Even theater professionals struggle with what exactly the word dramaturge means. I like the fairly simple definition provided by Liz Earnest, a local actress and educator who’s acting as dramaturge for TheatreLab’s production of “Mr. Burns: a Post-Electric Play,” which opened over the weekend in the troupe’s Basement space.

“My job is to provide context for the actors and for the audience,” Earnest says. “It can be factual background, understanding about social circumstances, or, for a play like this one, information on pop-culture references. It can be a lot of things but it comes down to context.”

“Mr. Burns” is set in a post-apocalyptic future (yep, another one) where survivors have latched onto one episode of the television show “The Simpsons” as an important mythology. The episode is called “Cape Feare,” and it’s a parody of the movie “Cape Fear,” originally produced in 1962 and then remade in 1991 with Robert DeNiro.

“Until [director] Deejay Gray and I dug into the script, we didn’t realize how layered all of the references were,” Earnest says. “I’m enjoying doing the research; it’s totally feeding my nerdy side.”

Though she grew up in Hanover County, Earnest is a relative newcomer to the Richmond pro theater scene. After graduating from Virginia Commonwealth University in 2012, she started getting cast in such shows as “Nice People Dancing to Good Country Music” at Virginia Repertory Theatre. She gained a lot of attention last year in an over-the-top quiche-consuming scene in Richmond Triangle Players’ “5 Lesbians Eating a Quiche.”

When not onstage, she works as an education coordinator for the School for the Performing Arts in the Richmond Community, or SPARC, where her high-energy personality has earned her the moniker Purveyor of Positivity.

Earnest’s role as dramaturge forced her to do research many would relish. “I was not a big ‘Simpsons’ fan,” she says. “So not only did I have to watch the ‘Cape Feare’ episode but I had to jump a couple of seasons back so I could understand the back story. I really gained a greater appreciation for the show.”

A bit less fun was the research she had to do on accidents at nuclear power plants.

“I’ve had to read very specific details about Chernobyl and the Fukushima accident in Japan,” she says. “Even though the world of ‘Mr. Burns’ is theoretical, the circumstances are very fact-based. So I had to figure out: Given what we know about the disaster that’s happened, what can we imagine the result would be? How would people be affected?”

“Those kinds of disasters are the last thing I like to think about,” she says. “It gives me so much anxiety. But it’s anxiety I can manage. I reviewed all of the safeguards [that] facilities like Lake Anna have in place and they make it clear they have things pretty well figured out.”

“Mr. Burns” runs through Aug. 6.

Running: It’s a big week for endings: Firehouse Theatre’s “American Idiot” and Swift Creek Mill’s “The Hallelujah Girls” close July 23. Richmond Triangle’s “The Boy from Oz” was extended to July 30, while Quill’s “The Merchant of Venice” will keep his pound of flesh until July 31. For shows during beach month, turn to Virginia Rep: “Dreamgirls” may close Aug. 7 (or may be extended) and “Brighton Beach Memoirs” continues until Aug. 28.

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