I have never been the biggest fan of The Simpsons. If anything, it was the guilty pleasure show that I would click on when I was home alone and too young to understand it, giddy with the knowledge that I was being rebellious and watching something inexplicably inappropriate. But the show itself never meshed with me the same way it seemed to with others of my generation, and often I feel as though I missed out on a whole host of cultural references, a hidden wisdom peeking through Homer’s donuts and Marge’s hair.
Luckily, Anne Washburn’s Mr. Burns, a post-electric play equalizes the playing field and appeals to Simpsons aficionados and ignorants alike. Directed by incoming ACT Artistic Director John Langs in a sort of introduction to his upcoming tenure (officially beginning in their 2016 season), ACT’s Mr. Burns is maddeningly thought-provoking in a way similar to a drug trip, uncovering personal and global themes with a backdrop of hallucinatory visuals.
Mr. Burns is set in a post-apocalyptic world. We’re never quite sure what happened or the characters’ exact location (nuclear power plant explosions; somewhere on the East Coast), but it’s clear that there are few people left alive in the country. Survivors rattle off lists of their friends and relatives when they encounter another wanderer, hoping to gain news of people or places. Groups band together and do what humans do when left alone without outside entertainment or anything to pass the time: They tell stories.
Our particular group of protagonists has one cultural reference in common: the “Cape Feare” episode of The Simpsons, whose plot and details they piece together from their collective recollections. And throughout this three-act play-turned-musical, we see not only a struggling community attempting to establish themselves artistically, but also surviving, as the group turns to reenactments of Simpsons episodes to make their livelihood, trading for supplies. By the third act, a larger sociological commentary has emerged: How does our art change over time? How do we adapt, synthesize, misinterpret, incorporate a story from generations earlier into our current collective consciousness? What if this single episode of The Simpsons took on the same epic qualities of Homer and Shakespeare, of the Bible and The Ramayana?
In Mr. Burns, what was a campfire recollection of cartoon events in the first act morphs into a play rehearsal of the same episodes in the second, complete with commercials and musical mash-ups (including upwards of twenty songs, Rihanna’s “Umbrella” and “I Will Survive” among them). The third act—in Washburn’s words “a fully fledged theatrical gesture far into the future”—demonstrates the trajectory of storytelling over the decades, as we see the ultimate result of artistic license, a performance that is half musical, half Greek epic and all sensory overload. Mr. Burns and Sideshow Bob have since been mashed into one malicious super-villain, snippets of the melody of “Toxic” echo through the tunes, Itchy and Scratchy are now humanoid-like helpers of the demonic title character.
Mr. Burns offers one interpretation of what could happen in a culture built on fear and escapism, The Simpsons and survival tactics. And the thing is, Washburn’s seemingly fantastical and over-the-top conception is not far off from the ways that shifting artistic ideals have historically affected a culturally pervasive story. How a culture’s tales change over time is evident in almost every artistic pursuit. Stories become embellished as they become established through oral tradition. Melodies are reorchestrated and remixed, taken out of their original context and dropped elsewhere. Sometimes these artistic snippets are allowed to keep their original meaning (see the use of the Gregorian Dies Irae chant, originally used in the Mass for the Dead but now heard in ominous soundtracks everywhere, from Saint-Saëns’s Danse Macabre to the opening credits of Kubrick’s The Shining) but often they are transformed or performed without historical conscience—such as the random holdover of “Toxic” in Mr. Burns’ third act. Why? It doesn’t matter.
Amidst the courage and confusion and general bizarre world of Mr. Burns, several of ACT’s performers shone brightly as actors to keep an eye on outside their work with the company. Adam Standley’s lovably awkward physicality turned unsettling in his portrayal of Gibson and Mr. Burns. Standley was captivating in both his demonic presence and his delivery. I urge readers who have an interest in new works to check out his ensemble, Satori Group (who, as it happens, are also throwing their delightful, annual Spookhaus party at NWFF this Halloween weekend).
Bhama Roget’s performance (Quincy/Bart) was also admirable, serving high sass in the second act, an incredible alto voice, and, in a complete character shift, Bart’s haunting straight-tone swansong, before a climactic slow-motion swordfight. Commendable ensemble work by all (including some fantastic a cappella singing) met with Robertson Witmer’s on-stage musical accompaniment for a fabulous artistic experience.
Mr. Burns runs at ACT through November 15; buy your tickets online. Come prepared to leave overwhelmed, uncomfortable and unnervingly dazzled.