Who would have thought that in a post-apocalyptic world, the thing that would save us all would be “The Simpsons.” That is indeed the case in “Mr. Burns, A Post Electric Play,” “a bold tribute to the human need for storytelling and art-making in traumatic times,” as stated on front page of the show’s playbill.
“Mr. Burns” is a dark obscure musical-comedy that is divided into three acts, essentially three long scenes, the first two making up the first half of the show and the third being the entirety of the second half. Playing in the Studio Theater, a small, intimate black-box theater, the show is a layered exploration of the significance of mass-culture icons in a crumbling world and investigates the way we cling to the familiar amid crisis.
Written by Anne Washburn and directed by Tom Whitaker, the show runs for approximately two and a half hours and is playing until March 12.
Act 1 is set in “the very near future,” according to the playbill. It takes place in a forest at nighttime. Matt, Jenny, Maria, Sam, Colleen and Gibson, portrayed by Jeremy Scharf, Cordelia Watson, Amanda Lawson, Cooper Bruhns, Maddie Martin and Zachary Macias, are survivors of some sort of nuclear disaster that has left the nation without electricity. The group sits by a fire in the woods and spends the majority of the scene trying to recite lines from their favorite episode of “The Simpsons.” It’s one of the most famous episodes of the show where Sideshow Bob, a malicious, evil character, sets out to kill Bart, following him to a backwaters houseboat where the family is hiding out. The 1993 classic is a parody of the Robert De Niro film “Cape Fear.”
Act 2 is set seven years after act one where the same characters are now a part of a “Simpsons”-themed theatrical troupe, performing episodes of the show along with commercials and mashups of chart-topping song hits.
The small multitalented cast, consisting primarily of BFA acting program students (except for one freshman, Cooper Bruhns), proved that they not only have major acting chops but they can also sing. The show is intertwined with somewhat obscure melodies of famous pop songs, like Eminem’s “Lose Yourself,” Britney Spears’ “Toxic” and Lady Gaga’s “Edge of Glory” that more often than not felt out of place and unnecessary. The show also contained interesting and harmonious original music by Michael Friedman with lyrics by playwright Anne Washburn.
Still set in the post-apocalyptic world where near-anarchy reigns and ownership of old “Simpsons” episodes is currency, the scene is laced with fear of physical death and the failure of their ensemble. Macias’s Gibson believes that he may have brain damage from residual effects of the nuclear disaster and panics. This has evidently happened before, as the whole cast begs of him not to go there again and is tasked with the job of reassuring him that no one is dying.
The group also is faced with the apprehension of the demise of their troupe to other “Simpsons”-themed theater companies. We see the same episode that was recited in Act 1 being staged in this act. Right before intermission,
“If you heard that Act 3 is the craziest thing ever, you didn’t hear wrong,” Assistant Director Tristan Newcomb said right before the show started.
Boy, was he right.
Act 3, taking place 75 years after Act 2, was confusing and slightly overwhelming but equally brilliant. The “Simpsons” episode that was recited in Act 1 and was again performed in Act 2 has now morphed into a stylized morality operetta where Mr. Burns, the evil nuclear-plant owner from the show, replaces Sideshow Bob as the villain.
The scene contained strong sexual undertones between Burns and Lisa and Marge Simpson; he essentially molests Lisa in front of her entire Simpson family before killing them all except Bart. The music was interesting, bringing back themes from songs from Act 2. The entire Act scene was outlandish and obscure — definitely an intentional choice by director Whitaker.
Overall, I found myself lost and confused during the majority of the entertaining, humorous, obscure play. There were just a few too many “Simpsons” references for anyone who has only watched the show on the rare occasion. Either way, the comedic timing and fervor that the cast displayed showed that the play, whether you understood it or not, was here to entertain — and it certainly did so.