What the hell? How is BART SIMPSON making me feel these things? "Eat my shorts," "Ay Caramba," "Why you little..." Bart Simpson? It finally hit me...it doesn't matter that it was Bart Simpson. It could have been any character, from any book, play, movie, or TV show (in fact, Anne Washburn did consider Friends, Cheers, and M.A.S.H for this play, among others).This was a post-apocalyptic world, in which people not only faced near-extinction and lost the majority of their loved ones, but also lost every comfort and piece of their lifestyles they had come to take for granted. Society was being rebuilt, and stories were one of the few things they could rely on (even if the details and structure of the stories were no longer constants). In that context, chanting the names of the dead does not seem as random or out of place. They, like everything else, have become the pieces of the history people have been clinging to for dear life as they try to navigate this new environment. Bart's song at the end is the song of humanity. It makes sense for Mr. Burns, owner of a power plant, to represent the disaster that eventually knocked the grid out and changed everything. Sure, it seems silly and absurd to make this point with cartoon characters, and it is. But...so what? We're lying if we say The Simpsons--or any cultural phenomenon, for that matter--hasn't shaped us. If this story was what bonded these initial survivors, and this was what they decided to pass down in order to remain connected and grounded, then it makes perfect sense. Even now, when The Simpsons has actually jumped the shark and is a shell of what it used to be, the formula it started with fulfills a societal craving . For a long time, they were arguably the most loving and functional family on television, yellow skin and weird spiky hair and all. When a society is forced to create new families with bereaved and needy strangers, why wouldn't they immerse themselves in that comfort, from any source?
As I mentioned before, Mr. Burns is not for everyone. It is experimental, dark, and crazy (though less so in the first two acts). It took me a day or two to truly process what I had seen, but once I did, I found it fascinating . It slightly altered the way I looked at theatre itself (which is a huge part of my life).
Like many theatre nerds, I subscribe to some complicated beliefs about the stage. I enjoy good, clean entertainment, but every now and then, comfortable and safe theatre doesn't quite do it for me. Sometimes I need brave, loud, and intrusive theatre. I need theatre that will rattle around in my brain weeks after seeing it, because it was an experience rather than just a spectacle. I will say, much to my surprise, that Mr. Burns has been haunting me. Avant garde is not everyone's cup of tea, by definition, but I feel the need to write about this particular play because I feel like it has a lot to say about the roles our stories play in shaping our culture. Even something as seemingly light as The Simpsons makes enough of an impact to unite strangers when a human connection is most needed.
This (very) dark comedy premiered in Washington, D.C.in 2012 and was performed in New York the following year. The play was conceived when playwright Anne Washburn pondered what it would look like to "take a TV show and push it past the apocalypse and see what happened to it." In 2008, Washburn decided to hold a workshop in a bank vault just below Wall Street (which had been doubling as a rehearsal space). She gathered a small group of actors, who formed a troupe and spent a week in the vault recalling details of an episode of The Simpsons. Their selection, "Cape Feare," was a particularly interesting choice because it was a parody of the 1991 film Cape Fear, which was a remake of a 1962 film (which, in turn, was based on a novel entitled The Executioners). Washburn recorded their conversations, which eventually evolved into Mr. Burns.
Last week, I saw a college production of a new play called Mr. Burns: A Post-Electric Play. Yes...THAT Mr. Burns. "EXCELLENT" Mr. Burns, Homer's boss at the nuclear power plant. To say that this was "a play about The Simpsons," however, would be simplistic and slightly inaccurate. Yes, it is technically ABOUT The Simpsons, but it would be more authentic to say it was a story about a story about The Simpsons. Confused yet? Just wait.
"And now that I’ve lost everything
Now that everyone I love is gone
All I have left is everything
The river carries me on
Though every fear is facing me
And I do not know what next will be
And I cannot know what next I’ll see
I’m running forward anyway
I’m not afraid to meet the day
The world is filled with everything
I’m a boy who could be anything
And now I will do everything
The whole world unfurls before me
A great adventure lies before me
I’m reaching out for everything
I’m calling out to everything
There’s nothing I’m afraid to be
The world is new and glittery
I run to meet it hopefully
Love never dies in memory
and I will meet life gloriously..."
After kidnapping and murdering Marge, Homer, Maggie, and Lisa (but not before taunting and, as heavily implied, sexually assaulting Lisa, in what is perhaps the most cringeworthy and unsettling moment of the play), Burns engages in an epic swordfight with Bart, who has all but accepted his own death. When the ghosts of his family encourage him to keep fighting, Bart eventually emerges as victor, dispatching Burns and his accomplices.
Picture from the original production at Wooly Mammoth Theatre in D.C.
by Karlene Catastrophe
Where do I even begin with this play? A part of me doesn't want to say too much, because those interested should go into it with as little information as possible. However, I also have a lot to say about it, so I may have to go ahead and include spoilers for my own sanity. The play unfolds in three acts that take place over a total of 82 years--three acts that bear little to no resemblance to one another stylistically. In fact, it is practically a set of three different plays with a solid, common thread.
As the play comes to a close, the old lamps and other light sources that sat dormant throughout the production suddenly illuminate the stage. For a moment, it seems as if electricity has returned, and society is rebuilding itself. As the light grows, we see Mr. Burns backstage, peddling a bicycle that operates a generator. This last, melancholy image, played to Bart's song, leaves us slightly unsatisfied, but somehow hopeful. Often, we don't think about how stories make us who we are. Sometimes we have to go off the grid--literally or figuratively--to see that.
The second act introduces us to the same survivors, who, seven years later, have formed a theatre troupe that performs the very scenes from The Simpsons they discussed in Act One. This time, we see that their fuzzy memories have altered the very canon of the show. We learn that the post-electric world thrives on simulated television, and stories are a means of continued survival. Theatre groups purchase lines from episodes from folks who can remember them, in exchange for money, food, and rare items (apparently, Diet Coke is now obsolete, as are other treats). We watch the rehearsal process as the group simulates their former reality, right down to placing mirrors in old television sets and creating powder clouds to represent steam. In addition to Simpsons episodes (well, really just "Cape Feare," since apparently each group only has access to specific episodes), they act out their versions of commercials, which are no longer about selling products, but rather focused on, as one character puts it, "creat(ing) a reality which is welcoming, not challenging" (i.e. helping "viewers" recall what they had before the disaster). They also perform heavily-choreographed mashups of pop songs from the past decade, apparently designed to recall easier, happier times. When one character implies that what they are creating does not have meaning, another argues "Meaning is everywhere. We get Meaning for free, whether we like it or not. Meaningless Entertainment, on the other hand, is actually really hard." This tension escalates as the group laments the competition across the country, who are performing their own versions of The Simpsons and gaining followers. They worry about angry viewers who claim to have had their lines stolen and erupt into violent rages over payment. Additionally, one character suffers a near-breakdown when he believes that his forgetfulness is a sign of physical trauma caused by the nuclear disaster and that he will soon die painfully. The act concludes with a shock ending, raising questions that are never answered when the play ends.
The play opens as what appears to be a stagehand is vacuuming the stage (we later learn that she is a sort of Greek Chorus. I should note that this bit was unique to this production). Various unplugged light sources, including antique lamps, litter the corners of the stage (and remain there throughout the production)Suddenly, the lights flicker, and we hear an enormous crash. The audience sits in pitch darkness for a nearly uncomfortable amount of time. Finally, dim light emerges onstage, and we see five people gathered around a campfire (the fire is the primary light source for the entire first act). They are in the middle of discussing a famous episode of The Simpsons, "Cape Feare" (the episode in which Sideshow Bob sneaks onto a houseboat in yet another attempt to kill Bart--but not before performing the entirety of the operetta H.M.S. Pinafore). The group is recalling moments of the episode, quoting what they can remember and good-naturedly debating the details. The tone of their conversation shifts as we learn why they are there: They are the survivors of an unspecified nuclear disaster that has forced them into a post-electric apocalypse of sorts. The tension builds as they hear vague sounds, take up arms, and interrogate approaching strangers. They periodically return to the comfort of reliving The Simpsons before being jolted back into their bleak new reality--a world that has literally gone dark and separated them permanently from loved ones and the comfort of all they held dear. By the end of the act, this remains the status quo.
The discomfort and bewilderment we experience at the end of the second act only increase as we enter Act Three. 75 years have passed, and we learn nothing about the fate of the survivors we knew in the first two acts. The actress who serves as the chorus (and is credited in the program as Ms. Krabappel for Act 3) appears onstage, dressed in decidedly Greek attire this time. She is soon joined by the other actors, who also appear in Greek garb and sound guttural, primal chants. After ritualistically reciting names of lost loved ones mentioned in Act One (since they too have become legends, apparently), the spectacle unfolds into a mixture of Greek drama, Elizabethan tragedy, opera, and--you guessed it--the celebrated "Cape Feare" episode of The Simpsons. The effect is just as absurd, mesmerizing, disturbing, and weird as you would expect it to be. Because the episode has now been retold so many times, filtered and altered through oral history and drama, the episode barely resembles its original state. It has even changed genres, and is now a pitch-black, epic Jacobean vengeance play that also incorporates operetta and pop tunes from the 90's and early-2000's (Britney Spears's "Toxic" features prominently in one moment, having also been sung in Act Two. Fair warning: After this show, you will never hear it the same way again). Somehow, throughout the course of the retellings, Sideshow Bob has been replaced with Mr. Burns. There is nothing comic about this Burns, or these Simpsons (aside from a few one-liners from Bart, which are still dark in nature). This Mr. Burns is pure evil, with his wild patches of hair and long, crooked nose exaggerated to grotesque proportions. His sidekicks are Itchy and Scratchy, who are even more demonic than Burns, sporting savage faces and razor-sharp teeth/claws. The Simpsons themselves are also represented with masks that are reminiscent of the original cartoon characters, but have a decidedly ancient drama look to match the Greek-style costuming (which creates a slightly creepy effect).
Now, this is the part of the show where I realized what was happening. If you stayed with it this long, took this implausible trip, accepted this twisted vision, you were rewarded. It hit me as Bart sang his surprisingly beautiful and tragic final song: