I'll just start by explaining that Mr. Burns: A Post-Electric Play is not a play about The Simpsons. It may rely heavily on The Simpsons, specifically the 1993 episode of the show titled "Cape Feare," which was a send-up of Martin Scorsese's 1991 remake of the film Cape Fear, and fans of The Simpsons will most certainly get a kick out of Act 1 for that reason. But from the jumping-off point of several people trying to recount the events and lines of that episode from memory, this play becomes a wildly weird, rich, and intellectual experiment in humanity's relationship to theater and storytelling, and the process of myth-making as it might occur in a post-apocalyptic world.
I'll also start by recommending that if you're into theater and might be planning to see this show, you should. Like, buy a ticket now and don't bother reading the rest of this review. It is edgy, wonderfully acted, funny, bizarre, and well worth it, and could end up being the stand-out highlight of the A.C.T. season (even if it is completely baffling and off-putting to much of their senior citizen subscriber base). It is the kind of play that works best when approached with an open mind and without much knowledge of what you're going to see, and below there will be some spoilers insofar as I'm going to break down how the play is structured, and I enjoyed having that be a surprise.
But, if you prefer to know exactly what you're getting into, read on.
Playwright Anne Washburn began with the idea that she wanted to take a piece of contemporary mainstream television and imagine it as it might be refracted by collective memory in the distant future. She had considered Cheers and M.A.S.H. but instead settled on the longest running television sitcom of all time, to date, The Simpsons. She then gathered some actors together in New York in 2008 and started having them try to remember as much as they could of a specific episode. And she recorded their dialogue as they all settled on the "Cape Feare" episode, in which Bart receives threatening letters which turn out to be from Sideshow Bob (voiced by Kelsey Grammer), and the entire family is then relocated under the witness protection program to a houseboat on Terror Lake. Unbeknownst to them, Sideshow Bob straps himself to the bottom of the family car and arrives with them there, and ultimately ties up the whole family and attempts to murder Bart. But Bart ends up stalling Sideshow Bob by making a "last request" to have him re-enact the entire score of Gilbert & Sullivan's HMS Pinafore. After the boat runs aground, Sideshow Bob is apprehended just in time.
Washburn took those basic plot points, and some of the funnier lines as remembered by the actors, in order to create the majority of the dialogue of Act 1, in which five people are sitting around a campfire in the Northern California woods somewhere, shortly after an apocalyptic nuclear event involving multiple power plants across the country. A traveler named Gibson (Jim Lichtscheidl) comes upon their camp, they engage in a ritual in which they all compare notebooks of the people they've encountered to see if any of them have seen their loved ones, and then with Gibson's expert Gilbert & Sullivan help, they finish recounting the episode.
Act 2 brings us seven years into the future, with the country perhaps more stable but still without any electrical grid. For entertainment, in the style of vaudeville and the traveling theater troupes of the 19th century, these same travelers from Act 1 have now formed a troupe of their own, their specialty being a costumed re-enactment of the "Cape Feare" episode. Other groups around the country lay claim to other episodes, and a loose fair trade system has evolved in order to piece together lines of dialogue from different peoples' memories. Also, they perform popular song medleys in between bits (from Beyoncé to Eminem to Britney Spears), and reenact TV commercials in a fetishistic manner, carefully recalling the luxuries they knew pre-apocalypse, like diet soda, wine, bubble baths, and sandwiches. A.C.T. company member Nick Gabriel, in the role of Matt, shines brightest in this act, after showing in Act 1 how well he could do various voices from The Simpsons, Homer in particular.
But as much fun as they seem to be having making theater out of this bygone era of popular culture there is talk, also, of other troupes who reenact The West Wing, and those devoted to "the Shakespeares" this remains an unstable world, as the act comes to a sudden and violent end.
Post-intermission, things get truly meta and vividly theatrical in Act 3, when we get to see a fully staged production of "Cape Feare" as it has been re-filtered and reimagined 75 years later, complete with a Greek chorus holding masks of Chief Wiggum, Apu, and other supporting characters, singing a spooky introduction to the show with the Springfield nuclear power plant as a backdrop.
In this future Washburn imagines, The Simpsons, and this episode, have become a central cultural touchpoint and myth. Bart has become a singing hero of light opera, Sideshow Bob has morphed into Mr. Burns as a kind of archetypal villain, and the plot of the episode has become far darker and more malevolent. The entire cast is disguised under heavy, cartoonish yellow makeup, there's a female narrator who stands to one side with guitar, and Mr. Burns, with the help of two costumed players as Itchy and Scratchy, engages in a final, epic sword battle with Bart. Not only are there riffs from Eminem and Britney Spears' "Toxic" woven into this futuristic opera, but Washburn and composer Michael Friedman create a Gilbert & Sullivan-meets-Greek-tragedy masterpiece that defies easy description.
The result is something unsettling but spookily beautiful. On the one hand it is inspiring to imagine a world where, stripped of all our modern technology, we return to this ancient art form to help understand our past and and comfort ourselves. And on the other, Washburn has given us a piece of theater about a future none of us would ever want to live in and, seriously, some of the scary-clown makeup in Act 3 could give you nightmares.
Director Mark Rucker, who will be taking this production and its cast to the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis after this SF run ends March 15, insists that Mr. Burns "is not as 'edgy' as we think. It's not an avant-garde piece. It's just a really unique play that has a lot to say about culture, how we get through difficult times, and how we retell stories." But, of course, it is pretty edgy, especially for A.C.T., and is also one of the most boldly original post-apocalypse stories I've ever seen or read.
See it. That is all.
Mr. Burns, a Post-Electric Play runs through March 15 at the Geary Theater. Get tickets here.