Dissecting an episode of The Simpsons used to fall to those bored on the couch or small-talking at a friend’s party. That was before the grid went down, the cities caught fire, and the American dream turned to ash. In playwright Anne Washburn’s post-apocalyptic future, the couch is still there, but the party’s over.
Washburn’s three-part study of post-electric America, wrapped elegantly and powerfully into an idea-stuffed two hours, shakes seven survivors out of the woods for a bruised and darkly funny hang-out around a trashcan fire. Three in particular (played with pitch-perfect earnestness by Steve Rosen, Kimberly Gilbert and Jenna Sokolowski) spend the first part of the play recounting “Cape Feare,” a much-loved episode from The Simpsons’ fifth season that parodies, among other things, the 1962 thriller Cape Fear starring Gregory Peck and Robert Mitchum, as well as Martin Scorsese’s 1991 remake.
“Cape Feare” isn’t just great comedy writing (although it is) – it’s a well-polished little jewel of nineties television. Which, by the pop culture clock, is well-worn history. These little legends are the stuff of our shared identity – stories received not from our elders but in syndication – and when making friends with ragged strangers on the road, what better path to common ground than the re-runs?
At first, Mr. Burns appears a grim tale indeed. Over the sounds of crickets and crackling firewood we watch these wandering souls clinging to the known, scrounging for scraps of a collective past. But we delight in their efforts to stitch the story together. Rosen does great impressions of Simpsons characters. The episode’s jokes themselves are inspired. And we chuckle as we recognize that feeling of trying to explain something when you can’t remember all the pieces.
The next two acts – each a striking evolution from the one before – bring such delicious and exotic surprises that it’s unfair to hint too strongly at what’s over the horizon. But as the years pass, and society’s memories of pre-disaster America become increasingly skewed, director Steven Cosson and his design team grow a rainforest out of a desert, tapping the hearts and ambitions of its characters at full capacity (actors Amy McWilliams, Erika Rose, Chris Genebach and James Sugg round out the cast). Michael Friedman’s musical jambalaya of a pop score, which accompanies the third act, adds even more warped texture to life’s rich pageant circa 22nd century.
Cosson is the Artistic Director of The Civilians, the innovative and much-lauded New York company which describes itself as “investigative theater.” Since Mr. Burns is, among other things, a vivid study of the impermanence of text, Washburn’s play may seem an odd fit for a group of artists who have frequently recorded and documented real life in their shows.
Yet it proves to be a perfect subversion. Living in a modern age characterized by the Cloud – and the instantaneous copying of reality from one like, tweet, and pin to the next – Washburn and Cosson show us the inevitable moment when, cloud-less and exposed to the world beyond our personal video screens, we must once again remember by speaking and acting. In one early scene, each survivor pulls out a battered notepad and reads aloud their personal index of acquaintances met along the road – a handmade Facebook, if you will. From there, the group’s attempts to cobble together the past grow more and more imaginative.
As the loving, unstable troupe member Gibson, Genebach becomes the emotional heart of the play by the end of act two. But each of his fellow actors provide a unique energy and some delightful idiosyncrasies. They learn, cry, sing, and struggle to recall. And by show’s end, they have birthed a mutated passion play of sorts, played to the walls and reverberating (unbeknownst to the characters) with theatrical history. Their account of the long-gone electric era is deliriously incorrect, marvelously colorful, and charming in its uninhibited leaps of faith.
But it’s not just cute. These players from the future have also drastically conflated our modern-day America with the Springfield of The Simpsons, nuclear power plant and all. The realization is rather chilling – we have wrapped our real selves so tightly inside the pop culture fictions we consume that it’s no wonder our descendants can’t see us through the noise.
It may seem dumb of future Americans to think of The Simpsons as the real face of America, but just look around. They’re on our stamps, for pete’s sake. We tell stories about them at parties and around campfires. Many of us spend more time with Homer, Marge, Bart, Lisa, and Maggie than we do with our own grandparents. Still want to argue that they’re not real?
One of the most intriguing surprises in Mr. Burns, then, is how well The Simpsons stand up as American archetypes. With the show’s colossal cast of stock characters, its politically-minded ear, and its exploratory sense of what can be funny, this very nuclear family is at the mischievous center of this moment in history. With great astuteness, and some real flair, Washburn and Woolly haven’t just shown us the future – they’ve painted an indelible vision of what we’ve already become.
Mr. Burns, a post-electric play runs thru July 1, 2012 at Woolly Mammoth Theatre, 641 D Street NW, Washington, DC.
Mr. Burns, a post-electric play
Written by Anne Washburn
Directed by Steven Cosson
Produced by Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company
Reviewed by Hunter Styles
Running time: 2 hrs 15 min with one intermission