In October my fellow casting agent and I went to Phoenix’s bohemian arts district for a night of legitimate theatre. Recipients of the Mayor’s 2014 Art Award, the much loved alt. theatre Space 55 presented the AZ premier of Anne Washburn & Michael Frieman’s MR. BURNS, A POST-ELECTRIC PLAY.
“Mr. Burns, A Post Electric Play” imagines a future in which The Simpsons is the dominant oral tradition. The first act has a group of survivors of an unspecified apocalyptic scenario, gathered around a fire attempting to recall the details of the Simpsons episode CAPE FEARE (Season 5, episode 2), in between expressing their anxieties about the creeping danger of their area’s now-unstaffed nuclear power plants.
The second act, set seven years later, has this same group of friends working as a theatre company with costumes and props salvaged from garbage. They earn a living acting out their version of Cape Feare and other episodes, as well as “commercials” consisting of pop song medleys and memories of favorite foods and other bygone luxuries. In this crude future version of TV entertainment, they compete for audiences with other Simpsons acting troupes, who have the rights to other episodes.
The third act takes place 70 years in the future, where presented without comment is that time’s style of entertainment. Cape Feare has taken on new life as a way to tell the story of society’s collapse. Sideshow Bob has been replaced by Mr. Burns, who represents the threat of nuclear radiation from the power plants, and the Simpson family is attempting to escape from him on a houseboat. The Gilbert and Sullivan songs that play a role in Cape Feare have also made their way into this oral tradition. In this future, the Simpsons are the new Shakespeare. While no one alive at this time has ever seen an episode of the Simpsons, the show still provides a useful and relevant structure for storytelling.
What an experience! Two months later I’m still trying to process/explain what it was all about: surviving, the survival of art in the face of cataclysm, the necessity of shared memory in building community, core texts of civilization, finding meaning while facing The End.
The play’s casual feeling opening act is a great way to begin unpacking the larger ideas at play in the play. Characters getting to know each other by sharing a universal and safe memory in an intimate campfire setting, the need for any comfort shows how bad things are in this post-catastrophy world. It also suggests how little things have changed since the times of our ancient ancestors who also definitely shared favorite fictional tales as they hid from the dark night. The script perfectly communicated that in retelling their simple Simpsons memories, the encamped are also trying to ward-off the mind-breaking terror that they are living through.
Space 55’s staging and choice of cast for the play were both excellent. The performers embodied their characters with heart, they felt three-dimensional and relatable. Space 55 is a self-funded non-profit: a small, bare bones operation that uses whatever is cheap and at-hand to do get their work done. “Mr. Burns…” wouldn’t feel as authentic if staged in a mainstream or financially flush institution, and the inadvertent affect provided the perfect mise en scene for the second act. I can imagine Space 55 surviving this apocalypse unchanged, a feeling that gives the artist in me some pride: when The End does come the nimble and creative will have some advantage and value.
In the final act of “Mr. Burns…” the original story has become a deeply rooted cultural vine off which have grown the monsters and legends of this new age. Through “Cape Feare” the children of survivors have processed their fear of armageddon, sickness, death, and radioactive mutation. The characters of Mr. Burns has evolved into the ultimate boogyman/devil, and Bart a survivalist avenging angel. The New York Times review compares “Mr. Burns…” to THE DECAMERON, a 14th century play about encamped storytellers surviving The Plague. Alongside that homage I’d add influences from “A Canticle for Leibowitz”, “Fahrenheit 451”, the comic book “Y the Last Man”, and also the early stories from Western Culture “The Canterbury Tales” for its insistence on the importance of narrative and using stories to teach caution, and “Beowulf” for the way it memorializes its heroes–as well as the number of times it has been told across various media.
“Mr. Burns, A Post-Electric Play” is a collage of other peoples’ works, half-remembered ideas, and obvious influences too many to count. For any other play this summation would be an insult, but not at all in this case. Washburn and Frieman took a handful of minor cultural touchstones, sieved them for purity, and made a new piece of art from the flour: an exploration visceral primordial fears, a story about the persistence of story, and a possible direction for where the narrative will go next (while at the same time insuring they have now become part of the narrative themselves).
If you get a chance to see “Mr. Burns, A Post-Electric Play”, especially at a small independent theatre, do it. Better yet, if you can get hold of the script I hope you pull together your own basement production assembled from friends and family–it could be the only better way to experience it.