Mr Burns, a Post-Electric play had its world premiere in Washington DC five years ago. An apocalyptic play, the piece was written by American playwright Anne Washburn. It’s an examination of how myths and stories can morph over time, and how people of the day use and shape stories to make sense of the world they inhabit.
“Since all stories, no matter how fanciful, are in some way constructed from our experiences, real or imagined, all storytelling is a remaking of our past in order to create our future,” Washburn was once quoted as saying. In conceiving of this work, the writer contemplated what universal stories people would tell if the end of our civilisation was upon us, and how precisely those stories would be told.
Given the status it’s earned as a truly global pop-culture phenomenon, it’s easy to understand why Washburn conceived of a world where episodes of The Simpsons would survive. Today, it’s the longest-running sitcom in television history, with more than 600 episodes having been aired over its 28-year history, and has won a plethora of awards. In fact, Time Magazine even named The Simpsons the best TV show of the 20th century. “Dazzlingly intelligently and unapologetically vulgar, the Simpsons has surpassed the humour, topicality and, yes, humanity of past TV greats,” the publication once declared.
Mr Burns, a Post-Electric play begins in the world of the near future, in the aftermath of a devastating nuclear plant failure that has left America without electricity. As the first act opens, we meet a group of survivors sitting around a campfire. They begin to talk about The Simpsons and, more specifically, the ‘Cape Feare’ episode. For those unfamiliar with the series (and for those who are, but require a brief refresher), the episode parodied the 1991 film Cape Fear, itself a remake of a 1962 film, which was based on John D. MacDonald’s novel The Executioners. The episode involves the release of the Kelsey Grammer-voiced Sideshow Bob from prison. He’s determined to kill Bart Simpson, who he blames for his incarceration. In an effort to escape, the family enters the Witness Relocation Program, changes its surname to ‘Thompson’ and embarks on a new life in a houseboat. Unbeknownst to the family, Sideshow Bob has followed them to their new home and intends to kill Bart. Eventually confronted by the criminal, Bart makes a ‘last request’ that Sideshow Bob perform for him the entire score of Gilbert and Sullivan’s HMS Pinafore (which allows time for the now floating houseboat to travel up the river to Springfield, and a police force waiting to capture Sideshow Bob).
Each of the survivors around the campfire contributes to the conversation, recalling lines and events from the episode, helping to gradually piece it together. The mood, naturally, becomes light, but we’re soon quickly returned to the sombre realities of this post-apocalyptic world when an outsider, Gibson (Mitchell Butel), arrives at the campsite. He shares with the group information about events occurring outside of the area, and his exchange with them also serves to apprise the audience of a process in which the inhabitants of the new world now engage upon first meeting one another. Each person shares a list of names of people they have encountered during their own travels – a process that functions to reunite people with loved ones whose fate remains unknown. But as starkly as the tone changes, it eventually shifts back at the end of the act, with Gibson joining in helping piece together an accurate recollection of the ‘Cape Feare’ episode.
The play’s second act then focuses on events seven years later, at which time the same group of people now run and perform in a theatrical troupe that specialises in recreating full episodes of The Simpsons, complete with commercials that advertise products from the world that once was, and even acapella renditions of several old top 40 tracks. The text alludes to the existence of rival theatrical societies, competing against each other to create the most complete and accurate episodes of The Simpsons. In fact, so competitive is the industry that members of the public who can provide lines to one of these societies, in order to assist in creating complete episodes, are financially compensated for their efforts. But there also remains a looming threat that puts members of the troupe in harm’s way. We’re not told exactly what or who the threat is from, but as the second act draws to a close, we find the troupe thrust into an unexpected, armed confrontation.
In the play’s third and final act, a further 75 years has passed, and we’re treated to a theatrical presentation of the ‘Cape Feare’ episode that’s not only vastly different to the original narrative of the episode, but has also been worked into an operetta that has the feel of a Greek tragedy. It’s an iteration of The Simpsons episode that sees Sideshow Bob replaced in the story by Mr Burns (played by Butel), the wicked nuclear power plant owner – understandably, the truly villainous person in a world rebuilding after a catastrophic nuclear event. And Bart (Esther Hannaford) bears little resemblance to the cheeky, brattish 10-year-old known to television audiences today. In this version of The Simpsons, Bart is a more heroic figure, who’s ultimately responsible for bringing down his evil opponent.
Mr Burns, a Post-Electric play is truly unlike any other work you’ll see this year. It’s a strange and, at times, baffling piece, but is simultaneously bold, intriguing and truly inventive. It’s a show that keeps your mind ticking over well beyond your exit from the auditorium and the sheer brilliance of which takes time to properly appreciate. It’s a piece that offers a highly sophisticated illustration of how the shifting of time and circumstance imbues culture with different meaning.
Director Imara Savage (the current resident director of the Sydney Theatre Company) has taken this intelligently written text and created a physical production that does it total justice. At the heart of the production is an exceptional ensemble cast (Butel, Hannaford, Paula Arundell, Jude Henshall, Brent Hill, Ezra Juanta and Jacqy Phillips). It’s genuinely one of the most outstanding casts you’ll see on Australian stages this year, featuring some of our highest calibre artists demonstrating remarkable talent.
Coupled with Jonathon Oxlade’s wonderfully imaginative set and costume designs, Chris Petridis’ excellent lighting design and strong musical direction by Carol Young, Mr Burns, a Post-Electric play will likely remain one of the best theatrical offerings of the year. It’s a piece very much deserving in its own right of survival through the passage of time and even transcending civilisations.
MR BURNS, A POST-ELECTRIC PLAY SEASON DETAILS
Playing until 25 June
Upstairs Theatre – Belvoir St Theatre (25 Belvoir St, Surry Hills)
* Ticket prices can be dynamically adjusted either up or down without notice. This can apply to a small number of tickets in response to demand for a specific performance date or time.
Box Office 02 9699 3444 belvoir.com.au