The Simpsons was hardly the first cartoon to make humorous references to both highbrow and lowbrow culture, but the breakneck pace of its in-jokes and its willingness to get esoteric helped make it into the postmodern comedy institution that it is. Anne Washburn’s Mr. Burns, a post-electric play dares to imagine what the sitcom will look like decades from now, when its myriad cultural references are mashed up even further with references from other sources. The result, which is currently receiving its regional premiere at Stage West, takes a while to get going, but it’s well worth the stay.
The first act is broken into two sections, the first immediately after a nuclear event of some sort has killed more than 90 percent of America’s population. In this post-apocalyptic world where the electrical grid has been entirely knocked out, a small group of survivors huddling together on the East Coast tries to recall the story of “Cape Feare,” the 1993 episode of The Simpsons in which Sideshow Bob tries to kill Bart. The second section takes place seven years later, when the survivors have turned into a company of traveling actors who act out heavily reconstructed episodes of the show (replete with commercials) when they’re not busy fending off attacks by murderous armed bandits.
If you’re fuzzy on the specifics of “Cape Feare,” the theater does have a TV in the lobby playing the episode on a loop so you can refresh yourself. It’s a luxury the survivors could sorely use; one of the play’s themes is the unreliability of human memory — early on, a survivor remembers piranhas menacing Bart from the water off the boat, when in fact they are electric eels in the show. Unfortunately, this pays scant dividends in the first act, when we get bogged down in a lot of business with the survivors comparing notes on exactly what happened in the nuclear disaster and then later being caught up in the petty politics of the new theater world, as they fret about losing business to a wealthier rival troupe and talent to troupes that put on Shakespeare or episodes of The West Wing. There is an amusing riff when the actors idly wonder whether Diet Coke still exists and a mad number when the actors rehearse a musical mash-up of seemingly every Top 40 hit from the 1990s on. (Who knew that “Toxic” could be so haunting when sung as a serious dirge?)
Despite its lack of incident, the first act can’t be skipped, because you need it to fully appreciate the second act, which takes place 75 years afterward. The framing story drops away in favor of a full-dress performance of the episode, which over the years has morphed into a quasi-religious opera that casts Bart (Caroline Dubberly) as the persevering hero of a perilous journey who overcomes the depredations of Mr. Burns (Paul Taylor), who has replaced Sideshow Bob as the villain. The new work incorporates elements of The Mikado, Beyoncé, Peter Pan, Kanye West, Night of the Hunter, and ancient Greek theater, all scarcely recognizable. It is warped, audacious, and rivetingly bizarre.
Washburn has cleverly structured this thing so that the actors who have the most to do in the first act (such as Ian Ferguson as the main recaller-turned-production designer and Henry Greenberg as a traumatized actor) have less in the second act and vice versa. The singers in the second half aren’t always well-served by the acoustics at Stage West’s current venue — there were times when the two keyboardists situated above the audience drowned out the performers on the stage. Still, Michael Friedman’s music finds some terrific interpreters in Taylor, Amy Mills (as the Greek chorus-like celebrant), and Mikaela Krantz (as Lisa Simpson).
Besides a testament to the enduring power of theater and a statement on how culture tends to take the parts of its past that it finds useful to its present, the second act of Mr. Burns amounts to a fragile expression of hope from a future society that has come back from the brink of extinction. Perhaps it isn’t as moving as it should be in that regard, but in this play, Stage West has given us something utterly amazing to see. As a great philosopher once said, “Cowabunga!”
a post-electric play
Thru Sep 13.
821 W Vickery St, FW.