In its typically thoughtful way, Hollywood has provided us with several apocalyptic futures from which to choose: fighting off robots or zombies, being engulfed by floods or fiery meteors, succumbing to viruses or alien invasions. But in the future in Mr. Burns, a Post-Electric Play, people huddle around a campfire and entertain themselves by re-enacting episodes from The Simpsons.
Didn’t see that one coming. In his review, KERA’s Jerome Weeks says the regional premiere of the off-Broadway comedy at Stage West in Fort Worth is not just bleak, it’s funny. And smartly done.
If you know The Simpsons — especially if you know episode two, season five — odds are, you’ll enjoy the challenging and oddball Mr. Burns at Stage West. You’ll certainly enjoy it more than if you don’t know that, say, Sideshow Bob is a deranged, former TV clown bent on murdering the animated show’s ‘lovable scamp,’ Bart Simpson. And sadly, you’ll probably find it harder to appreciate Anne Washburn’s remarkable comedy about disaster and the history of theater’s indefatigable re-invention.
Several of the best episodes of The Simpsons include spoofs of live theater — Broadway musicals, in particular — and Washburn’s Mr. Burns can be seen as a snarky bit of table-turning. Here we have the art of theater having fun with Matt Groening’s canary-colored TV series, especially as Washburn’s play targets one of the best of the show’s theater-send-ups. In the grim near-future in Mr. Burns, survivors try to bond with each other through a re-telling of that fifth-season episode titled Cape Feare.
Follow closely now: Stage West is presenting a futuristic play spoofing a TV cartoon which spoofs Cape Fear, the dark movie thriller about a psychotic child killer that was originally based on a novel by John D. McDonald. In the course of that spoof, the TV cartoon naturally has a psychotic would-be child killer — the aforementioned Sideshow Bob — perform the entirety of Gilbert and Sullivan’s H.M.S. Pinafore. So in this future world where layer upon layer of pop culture has been pressed together like grape squeezings, there is hunger, slaughters, madness, vocal impressions, in-jokes, heroism and light operatic singing.
You’ve been warned.
But Mr. Burns has more serious fish to fry on its trash-can fire than just spoofery. It’s only to be expected, for instance, that we Americans would end up in the powerless dark like this. Just consider Homer Simpson’s lazy incompetence at the Springfield Nuclear Power Plant, a facility so shoddily maintained by its Scrooge-like owner, Mr. Burns, that it has raccoons wandering in and out. Inevitably, then, our world was wiped out by a series of nuclear meltdowns — leaving only these hardy survivors to piece together what remains. And at the play’s opening, one of the few common bonds they have left is swapping favorite jokes from The Simpsons. The show has become the Dead Sea Scrolls, Gutenberg Bible and First Folio of American popular culture, a totem to be shared and preserved.
Seven years pass, and those impromptu campfire groups have become theater troupes. They now compete violently with each other to provide more elaborate shows (Meaning is everywhere, one woman snarls. But real distraction from these wretched times, real entertainment — that’s hard to come by.) No one’s seen an actual TV broadcast in years — there’s still no electricity, they’re using candles on stage — yet these theater companies re-create TV artifacts like ads and music videos. Composer Michael Friedman has whipped together a terrific mash-up of Eminem, Beyonce, Survivor, Gloria Gaynor and Kanye West — the perfect demonstration that pure meaninglessness can offer great comic entertainment.
In the second act, things get even weirder, mishy-mashier — opening with theater-as-ritual, part ancient-Greek drama, part Druid-gas-mask chant. The old TV religion may have died, but the new gods still clutch its fragments and wave them at us, invoking their power to enthrall — if not their success at selling hair products.
But from this ground zero of theater, we quickly leapfrog forward in stage history. In the TV episode, Cape Feare, the machete-wielding Sideshow Bob traps the Simpson family aboard a houseboat set adrift on “Terror Lake” — only to have Bart foil his murderous plans. He flatters Bob into singing the entire Gilbert and Suillivan score from H.M.S. Pinafore. (“Very well, Bart,’ he agrees cheerfully, maniacally, “I will send you to heaven before I send you to hell!“)
But by the end of Mr. Burns, it’s as if Gilbert and Sullivan have had their revenge by taking over and transforming these ancient Simpsonian relics. In this scene, Derek Whitener and Victor Newman Brockwell’s regal costumes may say ‘Shakespeare with the lid off’ but the actors (notably Caroline Dubberly as ‘Bart’) are singing comic operetta with élan.
All this sounds like an insanely fractured pastiche, a collegiate revue at best. But Ann Washburn’s triptych is about stage rituals and storytelling as attempts to honor the past, as fusions of affection and faulty memory, as — dare one invoke something so highfaluting? — as frail, precious forgings of culture and community amid the horror. (A member of Washington, D.C.’s celebrated troupe, Woolly Mammoth, she’s written such previous plays as The Communist Dracula Pageant.)
Let us recall the familiar ending of Ray Bradbury’s novel of a different dystopia, Fahrenheit 451. All the books in the world are being hunted down, piled together and burned, but at the end, hope comes from the furtive homeless — renegade intellectuals, actually — who’ve memorized entire books. They become living novels to preserve literature for some future epoch. Washburn has a bleaker, funnier, more complex idea of how cultural persistence might actually work. Here, human memory misfires and misbehaves, and the art of performance instinctively gloms on to anything – from Greek dramas to TV jingles — in order to adapt. Theater is perfectly willing to risk the ludicrous or the lumpen as long as it collects an audience along the way.
Directed by Garret Storms with musical direction by Aimee Hurst Bozarth, Mr. Burns is the most ambitious, most delightfully daring production Stage West has offered in years. OK, such a declaration could oversell the show. Some of the characters aren’t distinguished clearly enough, and the production doesn’t maintain the necessary sense of dread so powerfully evoked in the bleak opening moments. The second scene needs real fear, a feel for ruthless violence — so the absurdity can pop out more. (People are shooting each other to acquire old gags? Isn’t that what agents are for?)
Nonetheless, the energy and conviction of the cast are obvious — they seem to know this peculiar, funky show is something special. In particular, as a monstrous, cartoon villain at the end, Paul Taylor delivers a combination of Sideshow Bob, Richard III, Richard Nixon and Mr. Burns; it ranks as one of the hammier, more bizarrely entertaining performances I’ve witnessed, a kind of one-man, fright-wig, costume party. On a meth binge.
Many may well find Mr. Burns puzzling; it doesn’t provide conventional story lines to follow — mostly, you pick up on repeated in-jokes and theatrical references or on the echoes of lines like “Feets don’t fail me now” coming at you from different angles. I suspect in twenty years, much of the show’s humor — fittingly enough — will have to be translated for an audience that no longer has any idea who these TV characters are or how large they once loomed. But the big story in Mr. Burns is Washburn’s fresh, ridiculous image of how theater collapses and regenerates, constantly — like a coral reef building itself up on its own bones.
In short, it’s strangely, even warmly rewarding to discover that this is the way our world ends — not with a bang but a snicker.