Mr. Burns: A Post-Electric Play
Imagine a world where an unnamed epidemic has wiped out most of the population, where un-staffed nuclear plants have emitted their deadly powers in meltdown, and where desperate survivors roam the countryside looking for loved ones and defending themselves against roaming terrorists. Thus is the big-picture setting for Anne Washburn’s Mr. Burns: A Post-Electric Play. The more immediate, opening set is a campfire where a few, just-met escapees of this nightmarish disaster are trying to remember line-for-line the Cape Fear episode of The Simpsons. With a mixture of humor and pathos, our assembled group proceeds to recreate what for them is a familiar, not-too-distant story that helps both pass the time and to block out the horror (for the moment) of their collapsed and scary world.
The play proceed through two more scenes, one seven years later and one, seventy-five. Telling, acting, and eventually singing this story of the Simpsons as well as other stories of that bygone era when TV reigned as the great stage for all to watch becomes a means of passion and vocation for our protagonists and their next generation. Ms. Washburn explores our reliance on art to explain and expand our current lives using inspiring tales of heroic pasts, tales that we progressively know little about. The play moves to a climatic ending (mirroring the ending of the now-forgotten movie at the core of its storyline) through an evolutionary telling through cartoon, TV, stage, and opera. Our Homer of TV evolves to another Homer of old as people of the future seek to make sense of why their world is the way it is.
Staged as cartoon and moving eventually to Brecht-like opera with stops along the way in TV land and rock concert, the trouble with Mr. Burns is that it lumbers along rather laboriously and lingers too long in each of its settings. Points get made rather effectively with the creative sets, the adequate acting, and the evolving-through-the-‘ages’ costumes (and even voices and looks) of the Springfield townspeople and of the Simpsons themselves. However, rather than a 135+ minute play, this feels like it should have been a 75-minute or less production. The second, seven-year-later scene especially goes into a long tangent where the survivors are trying to recreate TV commercials, adding a new theme and dimension that diminishes the power of the core Simpsons tale about Cape Fear. And in the second-act opening, a rather bizarre opening musical number with all the more minor Simpsons characters on stage only adds complexity and non-needed storyline (and for non-Simpsons watchers, makes no sense).
Witnessing the evolution of this Simpson story through the ‘ages’ does allow many parallels to be drawn to our own grand operas/plays and their tragic stories of old and our proliferation of so many staged versions of Greek plays (told in so many varied ways that surely represent nothing of the original version). But the time spent to do so, the humor that mostly only evokes weak bursts of audience laughter, and the lags in energy on stage just do not make this a show that I can heartily recommend, even though I wish I could.
Rating: 3 E’s