Sunday, March 8, 2015

Mr. Burns: A Post-Electric Play

Ryan Williams French in production photo by Kevin Berne

I've never been a huge fan of The Simpsons, the Matt Groening cartoon that has been running for 25 seasons and counting. Not "not a huge fan" in that I dislike it, but "not a huge fan" in comparison to how it is possible to define a huge fan. A huge fan of the Simpsons is someone like my friend E., who can pretty much quote any episode verbatim, even though the show started just five years after our birth and we are now thirty.

But even though I've only seen a handful of full episodes, I know much more about the Simpsons than what is in those episodes, and not only because I've known E. for nearly twenty years. I remember a youth pastor ranting about Bart's disrespectful behavior when I went to a friend's church camp that turned out to be way more conservative than my usual church camp. When learning about satire in honors English, we discussed the Simpsons. I've seen the memes, and I know Nelson's "ha ha!" I don't think I've ever seen Comic Book Guy in action, but each comic book Wednesday, when on the way home from work I get that week's comic book and then walk across the street to the donut shop while wishing it were just attached to the comic shop for my convenience, I feel like Comic Book Guy, despite being a 120lb woman.

Comics and donuts should be sold together.

If you live in America, and even if you don't (last month Bolivian Simpsons fans protested a schedule change), the Simpsons has probably become a part of your culture, like it or not (interestingly, a search for clips on Youtube makes it clear how zealously Fox holds that copyright). It is this shared culture that is explored in playwright Anne Washburn's Mr. Burns: A Post-Electric Play, currently playing at A.C.T. through March 15. I saw this play recently (with E., of course), and found it funny, moving, and thought-provoking.

Washburn takes on that specifically post-atomic genre, the post-apocalyptic piece. Once we realized we had the power to truly destroy the world, we began creating art to cope with and explore that fact. The utterly devastating Threads, the gallows humor of Dr. Strangelove, Dr. Seuss's Cold-War-for-kids The Butter Battle Book, Cormac McCarthy's The Road, Carolyn See's Golden Days, and Margaret Atwood's Oryx and Crake are all part of this tradition.

In Washburn's play, survivors of a catastrophic event involving nuclear power plants sit around a campfire, trying to remember the Simpsons' "Cape Feare" episode. Some of the survivors are Simpsons devotees, and others have not seen an episode yet still know certain quotable lines. As the story progresses, we see how vital stories are and how they shift with the times while staying timeless at their core. Characters merge by design or accident, and circumstances change to reflect the teller's current reality. By the third act, the "Cape Feare" episode has transformed into something both brutal and uplifting.

If you're in the SF Bay Area and have a chance to see Mr. Burns this week, I recommend it.

Production photo: A.C.T./Kevin Berne
Comic Book Guy: "The Simpsons-Jeff Albertson" by Source. Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia