Produced by: American Conservatory Theater
Featuring: Nick Gabriel, Anna Ishida, Charity Jones, Tracey A. Leigh, Jim Lichtscheidl, Kelsey Venter, Andrea Wallenberg, and Ryan French Williams
Directed by: Mark Rucker
When: February 18 through March 15, 2015
Where: A.C.T.’s Geary Theater, 415 Geary Street, San Francisco, California
Tickets: $20-$120. Call 1-415-749-2228 or visit act-sf.org
In the children's game of "telephone," a sentence is passed from person to person, becoming a different set of words by the time it reaches the final ear.
In "Mr. Burns: a post-electric play," a half-remembered story about a cartoon told around a campfire in the near future is altered till it becomes a Wagnerian epic. This all unfolds after widespread nuclear-plant catastrophes have destroyed the nation's electrical grid, as well as most of its citizens and, apparently, all books.
In the post-apocalyptic world of "Mr. Burns," television is king, even though TV sets no longer work, and the height of creativity as well as where the money's at is remembering (or purchasing) lines from "The Simpsons" and bringing portions of the show to life on stage. Re-creating old commercials goes over well, too. However, in one of the play's best jokes, Shakespeare has been relegated to the lowest rung on the thespian ladder.
An exercise that could easily draw accusations of pandering to a non-theater clientele, Anne Washburn's 2012 play is much more than a nod to the cultural power of America's longest-running sitcom. Just as "The Walking Dead" concerns the plight of the survivors, with zombies often just scenery, "Mr. Burns" explores the motivations and coping mechanisms of those still soldiering on, through what they choose to remember and what they choose to refashion for a new audience.
Washburn, in a story in A.C.T.'s Words on Plays magazine, said the idea for "Mr. Burns" was sparked by the 9/11 attacks in New York City, where she was living at the time. "I imagined that in the midst of a catastrophe, people would tell stories if they had down time," she said.
She picked "The Simpsons" because of its popularity and how it acts as a patchwork of American culture, as well as for the notion that "the people in this world need storytelling to not be creative." Which brings up the only problem of the play: Entertainment in a dystopian future is not very compelling, yet that is what comprises the entire third act. Storytelling circa 2100 A.D. has become archetypal, painted in such broad strokes, as to be nearly meaningless for a pre-apocalyptic audience. The costumes and set pieces, however, are amazing throughout, especially during the final boat scene in Act III, where Marge has partly morphed into the Bride of Frankenstein; Homer is half Shrek; and Itchy & Scratchy (nobody in the play can remember which is which) are Mr. Burns' minions.
Washburn, who got her start with the American Conservatory Theater's Young Conservancy program, workshopped her idea in 2008 with The Civilians, an NYC-based theater group, asking members to try to reconstruct a "Simpsons" episode from memory. "Cape Feare," an episode from the fifth season in which Sideshow Bob pursues Bart, a la Max Cady from the 1962 and 1991 film versions of "Cape Fear," is the one best recollected. Act I (the campfire scene) of the three-act play at ACT's Geary Theater through March 15 is a faithful re-creation of that conversation.
The play's second act is the most engaging, taking place seven years after the death of the electrical grid, with the same characters who had gathered around the campfire now rehearsing live-action "Simpsons" episodes. In this world, "if their audiences don't enjoy their show, the characters don't eat," Washburn said. That desperation comes through as the players bicker about a breakdown in the fair-use system that governs "Simpsons" retellings, such that troupes are killing off other troupes to steal their lines.
The show's most remarkable scene, having nothing to do with "The Simpsons," also takes place in Act II. Given that fresh "Simpsons" lines have become scarce or too pricey, the troupe is working on a medley of dance hits, going all the way back to the theme from the 1980s "Fame" TV series. It's as if Beach Blanket Babylon has taken over the stage for a few minutes, and showcases the versatility of the outstanding cast. Plus, it's the perfect moment for a bit of comic relief as the tension is mounting.
"Mr. Burns" makes the case that it is through memory and storytelling that societies gain meaning. Its more subtle message is that complexity -- seemingly missing from the future society envisioned here is what breathes richness into life.
"Many narratives are incommensurate, but exist side by side," Washburn said, when asked how she would approach being a survivor of an apocalypse. "There is a multiplicity in looking at the world that I think people find really stressful and would love to get away from. However, I'd want to find a way of maintaining this complexity of discussion at a time when people would be tempted to reach for simpler explanations." Otherwise, we're in for a sequel to the Dark Ages.
Email Kevin Kelly at firstname.lastname@example.org