Mr. Burns – A Post-Electric Play

by Cory Conley · September 20, 2013

Playwrights on New Plays #3: Cory Conley looks at Anne Washburn’s new play at Playwrights Horizons’ Mainstage Theater

After a summer of robots, aliens and the undead wreaking havoc on humanity, it’s hard to imagine a more sobering antidote than Mr. Burns: A Post-Electric Play. Like its Hollywood counterparts, this epic tale by Anne Washburn starts in the midst of catastrophe, with a small band of survivors confronting the blackout and radioactivity caused by the permanent failure of the power grid. But Washburn is not at all concerned with the logistics of survival; nor does she introduce us to any supernatural forces. Instead, over the course of its wildly varied three acts, Mr. Burns celebrates the enduring power of human storytelling--- in particular, that oldest of living art forms known as theater.

It begins, of course, around a campfire. Five people (each played by a member of The Civilians, using their real first names) emphatically try to recall an episode of “The Simpsons” called “Cape Feare,” in which Bart faces down his nemesis Sideshow Bob in a houseboat on Terror Lake. They piece the plot together, more or less, although if you were to draw up storyboards based on their collective memory, it would probably look quite different than the real thing. By Act Two, which happens seven years later, the friends have formed a traveling theater troupe in the tradition of medieval Bible plays, telling an even more evolved rendition of “The Simpsons” story. We watch as they rehearse for their updated show, which comes complete with commercials. The troupe’s finale, a hilarious pastiche of tuneful pop hits composed by Michael Friedman, is the most inspired and exhilarating segment of “Mr. Burns.”

By Act Three, seventy-five years have passed, and the “Simpsons” show has turned into a bizarre spectacle indeed, with monstrous masks and a surreal horror in the air. You get the sense that by now, these characters (including the villain of the play’s title) have become objects of real worship, and that several myths have swirled together to create a kind of scripture. There’s still a houseboat, and a face that looks vaguely like Bart’s, but the narrative has been distorted beyond recognition, perhaps so that the troupe could include story elements that fit their post-apocalyptic era. Also, it’s a musical, again featuring songs by Friedman.

The shift in theatrical styles between the first and second acts might give you whiplash, but it does seem fitting here. So does Washburn’s choice of “The Simpsons,” which still stands as America’s most beloved satirist of cultural currents. A typical episode will usually include both devised and original material, blending them together to form something that both honors and mocks our moment in time. “Mr. Burns” does the same thing--- and the results are quite a bit darker than might be expected. If the play falters, it’s in the trippy and presentational Act Three, which ultimately feels like a detour without much context or conclusion. The idea works fine in theory; in execution, it meanders and loses steam.

The play features pitch-perfect sets by Neil Patel and costumes by Emily Rebholz, and it’s led by a dynamite cast. Much material was gathered from a few sessions that Washburn conducted with the actors themselves, and this lends the performances their easy, organic energy, especially in the opening moments. You’re reminded that theater, after all, is just a bunch of people in a room telling stories, and through most of our history, we did it perfectly well without electric machines.





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