When the apocalypse strikes and society crumbles, what will those who remain have left? The answer presented by Mr. Burns, a Post-Electric Play is memories of The Simpsons. The ACT Theatre production begins with a group of near future survivors of a nuclear catastrophe sitting around and killing time trying to remember the exact plot of the classic The Simpsons episode “Cape Feare.” What follows this seemingly trivial exercise is an exploration of how stories contort and become imbued with new meaning when passed down in pieces over the course of generations in a transforming society.
First thing’s first, don’t go to this show if you’ve never seen The Simpsons episode “Cape Feare.” (Thankfully, the Internet exists so you can watch the episode anytime with a cable subscription… or by other means.) Without the reference point to what the characters are trying to piece together, the entire first act would likely seem like an unintelligible mess (and would only get more muddled from that point on). But with the context of knowing the episode, the play becomes a fascinating examination of collective pop cultural memory.
The first act is strong enough to exist on its own as a one-act play. It’s fascinating to see the survivors try and piece together the episode from memory, and to see what tangents (like how Sideshow Bob’s knuckle tattoos are a reference to the film The Night of the Hunter) and misremembrances (like one survivor thinking nuclear power plant owner Mr. Burns was the episode’s antagonist or that this was the episode with the radiation-deformed three-eyed fish) arise. There’s an air of sorrowful tension in the air that the comedy must work to cut through, and the effort required makes each laugh more treasured. Erik Gratton does a terrific job as Matt—the man pushing the narrative of the episode forward—by capturing both the goofy joy in remembering details like Itchy and Scratchy’s hyper violence and the empathetic awareness to see that those around him need the comfort of these entertaining memories from their pre-apocalyptic existence.
While it’s not hard to see people bemoaning Mr. Burns as an overly confusing show, playwright Anne Washburn does a terrific job of providing just enough information to create a realized post-apocalyptic world without spoon-feeding the audience any forced expository dialogue. There’s never a full explanation of the nuclear disaster that wiped out most of the civilization, but the horror is conveyed through a second-hand story of a stranger’s vision of being ravaged by radiation while trying to refuel a nuclear plant’s generator to prevent immanent meltdown. When the survivors rifle through their books of names aloud at the arrival of a newcomer, they just get right to it instead explicitly saying that they’re trying to determine any knowledge of their loved ones’ fates.
It’s seven years later when the second act opens, and The Simpsons has become a central part in the somewhat rebuilt society. Groups of actors now perform episodes of the show, complete with commercial breaks that include showy medleys that feature tunes by pop stars ranging from Eminem to Ricky Martin. The reenactments have become such a big part of civilization, that specific lines from episodes become currency which can be traded for essential supplies like batteries.
The third act jumps 75 years in the future, where the “Cape Feare” retelling has become cultural mythos. Adorned with nightmare-inducing tribal masks, a troupe performs a sort of religious ceremonial song that incorporates The Simpsons and other scattered elements like the theater production’s musical commercials (“Livin’ La Vida Loca” pops up). The ceremony transitions into a warped musical theater version of “Cape Feare” that’s chock-full of inaccuracies that have been passed down over generations. While the actual episode climaxes with Bart and Sideshow Bob on a boat, this version finds “Mr. Burns” (a maniacal mashup of Sideshow Bob and Burns, played with frightful vigor by Adam Standley) with Itchy and Scratchy as his sidekicks terrorizing the whole Simpsons family on a boat in the toxic, post-apocalyptic wasteland. What started as a rambling bit of entertainment to keep the minds of early survivors off of their dire situation morphs into a parable about the determination to survive in the face of radiation (with Mr. Burns aptly, if not entirely accurately, standing in for those nuclear terrors).
Mr. Burns, a Post-Electric Play is far from the most even play, especially as it ventures into some distractingly over-the-top waters the further along the story progresses. But it’s always interesting in a way that forces the viewer’s brain’s synapses to keep up. They can always piece together exactly what they just witnessed at a later date.