Night after night, in millions of American households, TV is the balm that soothes our weary souls. With just one click of a converter (or launch of a stream), we can find a show that helps make us forget, feel, ponder, laugh and wind down from the challenges of each pressure-filled day.
Need some comic relief from the politics of our time? Simply tune in SNL or Last Week Tonight with John Oliver. Require a good, cathartic cry? This Is Us will clear those sinuses. Want to celebrate the diversity that makes this country great? Atlanta, black-ish and Master of None will do just that, plus entertain you as well.
No matter what you need 'em for, TV shows help us cope.
It’s no wonder, then, when a pandemic has destroyed most of the world’s population and nuclear power plants are blowing up because there’s no one left to tend to them, that a small group of survivors would turn to reminiscing about The Simpsons to help weather the fear and uncertainty of a postapocalyptic world.
So goes the premise in Anne Washburn’s darkly comedic, epically odd, brilliantly absurdist, yet at times frustrating 2012 work, Mr. Burns, a Post-Electric Play. Told in three parts, the play offers up continuing, looping chapters as survivors attempt to deal with and make sense of this pandemic aftermath world.
Act One, set in the near future, introduces us to a group of the lucky living who’ve come together after fleeing their ravaged or soon to be destroyed hometowns. In an effort to distract from the potential danger looming all around them and the memory of loved ones lost, they attempt to recount the "Cape Feare" episode of The Simpsons (the cartoon’s spoof of the two movies made from John D. MacDonald’s novel Cape Fear), scene by scene. With, all the while, guns and flashlights at the ready for whoever or whatever may be encroaching. When a new survivor shows up who happens to have some experience in amateur theater and can do a pretty darn good impression of Bart Simpson’s nemesis, Sideshow Bob, the possibilities for their play-acting evolve.
The second act picks up with the same group, plus some new survivor faces, seven years later. Now they're a full-fledged theatrical troupe specializing in performing Simpsons episodes, and we watch them rehearse and try to hone their brand of entertainment. There’s still the "Cape Feare" episode, among others, but with memory of the cartoon’s specifics getting fuzzier over time, they’re forced to buy dialogue lines from strangers to flesh out their repertoire. After all, they aren’t the only troupe in town competing for audience attention. But while their episodes lack finesse, they do have killer commercials and a snappy song-and-dance segment that mashes up the hits from back in the day ranging from Britney Spears to Beyoncé to Bruno Mars.
But there’s a reason the director and some of the actors have guns in their back pockets. This may be showbiz, where only egos get hurt, but outside their doors are desperate and hungry people who would rather have things than theatrics.
The third and final act takes us 75 years into the future. The Simpsons and "Cape Feare" are still showing onstage, but rather than reminiscence, it’s become a myth, with only a whiff of the original narrative intact. What was once comedy is now darkly melodramatic, with Bart and his family acting as the sole survivors of the nuclear holocaust adrift on that famous houseboat, chased by none other than Mr. Burns himself. Created as a salve for an audience still possibly rebuilding from disaster, this show, now a musical, is aimed at those who don’t remember The Simpsons at all, but sure as hell know about having to start over from disaster.
But while Washburn’s script cleverly tackles everything from pop culture, fading memory and coping mechanisms to the enduring power of commercialism and the importance of art – notably theater – for the survival of the human race, the show is not without its limitations and faults.
Never watched The Simpsons? Sure, you can relate to the bigger themes the show is putting forward and smile at the way Washburn slyly alters and repeats themes and ideas with each iteration of the acting troupe. But with so much invested in the cartoon’s characters, it would be hard for the uninitiated to truly find their way in. How could a layperson parse the violent delight of Itchy and Scratchy? Or the suave evil of Sideshow Bob? Yes, such a person can see that Mr. Burns is the ultimate villain, but without knowing that he is also the wealthy owner of the Springfield Nuclear Power Plant, does the irony come through?
Even for diehard fans, there’s no denying that the show drags somewhat in the second and final acts. As the narrative turns from personality-driven drama to pure meta-theatrics, we appreciate the creative genius behind the ideas but become far less engaged with the actual action onstage. Once past the amazement at all that Washburn is able to cram into this extravaganza of a show, we are left with a nagging feeling that it was far too long and involved. A big swing that overstayed its welcome.
That feeling isn’t helped by a lackluster production that never seems to get off the page and into the weird fun of the whole kooky experience. Under Tom Stell’s herky-jerky direction, the cast of 11 continuously behave as though they’re reciting lines instead of listening and reacting to one another. This discomfort and the off timing among the cast sap the climax/drama from each act.
There may be bad guys out there, but the lack of foreboding and fear renders Act 1 limp as a wet noodle. Sure, it’s fun to watch actors squabble backstage in Act 2, but the tensions are lukewarm, the emotional breakdowns wanting and again the fear of the outside is bungled. Act 3, usually the most problematic portion of the play thanks to the utter meta-theatrics of the scenes, fares better in this production because the actors only have to relate to one another as characters in show rather than as real personalities. But even here, and even with a fairly decent performance by Kurt Bilanoski as Mr. Burns, the act lacks the excitement needed to pull us through.
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With the opportunity to see this play twice now, performed in different cities and several years apart, there’s no denying that the uniqueness of the show wasn’t a surprise. Nor were its rough patches. And maybe that’s a hindrance. Perhaps a first-time viewer will be so carried away with the utter wonderful freakiness of the whole thing that he or she can forgive the production’s (and the play’s) failings and just marvel at the creativity.
For those of us who can’t, it’s like this. Have you ever been gobsmacked by the artistic statement accompanying a modern work of art, only to find the actual piece less interesting than the essay that accompanied it? If so, that is Mr. Burns, A Post-Electric Play. A brilliant, incredible, exciting experimental idea. But with this production and the fault lines in the show itself, a far lesser experience than the notion itself.
And yet still, there‘s no question that from here on, any patron watching or thinking about The Simpsons will stop and ponder what Washburn was trying to tell us. In the end, isn’t that enduring tickle in the back of our theater-watching throats why we bother with it all in the first place?
Mr. Burns, A Post-Electric Play continues through November 18 at Obsidian Theater, 3522 White Oak. For information, call 832-889-7837 or visit obsidiantheater.org. $20 students, $30 adults.