The determination to keep what’s lost alive, to create elusive meaning out of chaos, is at the heart of theater’s beginnings. Sounds lofty, but it’s behind both great drama and crass comedy. Anne Washburn’s Mr. Burns, a post-electric play is all of the above, a brilliant mash-up of The Simpsons, apocalyptic movies and origin myths. Above all, it’s the universal cry to make sense and keep laughing after a devastating crisis. And it proves true that one generation’s pop culture can morph into classical canon in one hundred years.
Everyone who loves The Simpsons has a favorite episode, one that they can still recite lines from (I used to do a killer Ralph Wiggum, “You choo-choo-choose me?” and yes, I own a beer can opener that sings out Homer proud, “Beeeeer. Yes oh yes whoo-hoo!”). If you can’t quite remember the line, well, just pull it up instantly online and push play, keeping your memory evergreen. Simple. But what if you could never refresh your memory, not for your favorite line, song, anything? In a “post-electric” world, the work would eventually be lost.
Or rather, it would mutate into something different, perhaps equally valid, or even greater.
That’s the challenge facing the characters in Washburn’s play. They’re clearly survivors, but we don’t know the precise nature of the catastrophe that’s blown the grid, causing nuclear meltdowns and the disintegration of society. They aren’t sure themselves, as they huddle together in uneasy social alliances for safety and warmth, exchanging lists of loved ones with every outsider in an attempt not just to find the lost but keep their memory alive. In the dark of night, they start to do what humans have always done to keep fear at bay – tell stories.
In this case, recreating The Simpsons’ “Cape Feare” episode. Sideshow Bob as Robert De Niro as murder Max Cady? Singing HMS Pinafore? Unfamiliar? You might want to watch it before you go. It’s not essential, but the play is stuffed with rich references.
Mr. Burns, a post electric-play is divided into three acts – the aftermath of a catastrophe, seven years later, and a longer jump of seventy-five years post-apocalypse. We aren’t following characters so much as riffs on the nature of memory and human endurance in the face of suffering. The survivors use the “Cape Feare” episode as a means to restore some meaning to their shattered lives, first with simple imitation, then inevitably through full-blown theater, like some medieval acting troupe performing to an audience traumatized by the Black Death.
Did I mention it’s also funny?
The humor isn’t just due to our ability to laugh in the face of trauma, but to the dedication of the ensemble in creating extremely natural characters. Washburn created the play through workshops with actors, and it shows: there’s an ease of interaction and dialogue that never awkwardly telegraphs “big ideas!” Chris Genebach, Kimberly Gilbert, Amy McWilliams, Erika Rose, Steve Rosen, Jenna Sokolowski and James Sugg are equally superb in their ability to make acting appear effortless. They also easily change from the low-key realism of the first two acts to the highly theatrical style of the magnificent third act.
That third act is really a gem, the perfect culmination of Washburn’s memory riffs. Part of its impact relies on the surprise of its style. Imagine The Simpsons performed by some German Expressionist opera company. It’s genius, both hilarious and heart-wrenching, an Everyman for the modern apocalypse. In the final metamorphosis of the episode’s retelling, the opening “credits” of the series mutate into the origin myth of the apocalypse they survived, and Sideshow Bob’s witty urbanity is replaced by the sneering Mr. Burns himself, the nuclear embodiment of the greed and folly that led to humanity’s fall. His new minions? Itchy and Scratchy, of course. The fear of the dark has become the terror of radiation sickness.
It’s terrifying, and yet again, it’s hilarious.
The production team is top-notch here, something easily overlooked when the acting is so good. That’s due in no small part to director Steven Cosson, who keeps the action and emotion at believable levels in the first two parts until unleashing them fully in the third. For that flawless third act composer Michael Friedman and choreographer Diane Coburn Bruning create something quite powerful, an utterly plausible progression of theatrical style. And the design team of Colin K. Bills, Misha Kachman, and Frank Labovitz keep the lights, set and costumes grounded in reality.
My only quibble is that the singing and especially the choreography of second act are just too good – it’s hard to believe this ragtag troupe would’ve been able to create or recall those complex dance moves. But it does make for an earnest and enjoyable moment.
It was interesting to mull over Washburn’s theme of memory’s power while the news of Ray Bradbury’s death hit. Mr. Burns has a slight resemblance to Fahrenheit 451, in the characters’ dogged determination to keep something ephemeral alive. As humans we relied on oral history for the greater part of our time on earth, what might happen should we have to again? The oldest stories – man against man, man against himself, man against nature – would continue to rise up from the chaos. As Bart might say, “Whoa. Hey. Cool, man.”
Mr. Burns, a post-electric play performs now through July 1 at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, located at 641 D Street NW, Washington, DC 20004. Closest Metro stop: Archive/Navy Memorial (Yellow/Green lines). For more information call 202-393-3939.