Humanity needs myths. Societies have crafted fantastical, otherworldly tales for millennia in order to make sense of the world they inhabit. From the reoccurring figures of Ancient Greek drama representative of natural aspects in the world to the stock characters found in medieval morality plays and 16th century Commedia Dell’arte, mankind revels in archetypes. Figures who symbolize a human trait, natural element, or abstract concept naturally connect with individuals who see these aspects in and around them daily. The world and its inhabitants make sense through myths. However, in the modern, scientific age western folklore has transmogrified from semi-religious expression and worship to pop cultural integration. For example, The Simpsons’ longevity and cultural diffusion has given its viewers a sizeable cast of instantly recognizable characters each with unique traits that are easily identifiable on sight as an over-exaggeration of aspects found in real life individuals. They have become instantly recognizable as representatives of the show, their qualities (or lack thereof), and of modern western culture. They are akin the mythological figures of old. Like them or hate them, they are necessary storytelling tropes that will not fade.
Mr. Burns, A Post-Electric Play by Anne Washburn begins with a group of survivors shortly after civilization’s collapse sitting around a campfire in an attempt to remember the Cape Feare episode of The Simpsons to keep their spirits up. It follows these individuals seven years later as reenactments of The Simpsons and other aspects of American pop culture have become both highly sought after live entertainment and a desperate attempt to hold onto pre-apocalyptic culture. Finally, we are taken to 75 years further into the future in which The Simpsons productions (incorporating modern music, sitcom references, and lines from Gilbert and Sullivan’s H.M.S. Pinafore) have reverted to a darkly surreal performance reminiscent of Ancient Greek mask theatre.
Performed in the Mary Moody Northern Theatre’s arena stage, Mr. Burns is expertly set and blocked by director David Long who takes every opportunity to utilize the 360 degree space, Long’s direction is evident in the casts’ ease with one another, never skipping a beat and skillfully avoiding leaving any one side of the audience surrounding them with a poor visual field. Sarah Maines and K. Eliot Haynes (lighting and sound designers respectively) realize their designs as all designers should, subtly and without breaking the audience’s suspension of disbelief. As one enters the theater they are greeted by a glowing green nuclear cooling emblazoned with a radioactive symbol which I honestly did not notice was a separate projection until it faded into a video clip. The cast is never fully cast in light or shadows in the arena setting while they traverse the floors lit in such a manner as to suggest campgrounds, rivers, and more. Haynes sound design is nothing short of masterful, creating soft ambiance in the first scene with distance breezes and the gentle crackling of a fire which took a shockingly long time for me to register were sound effects as opposed to real sounds. Together with scene designer Leilah Stewart, they have created a performing space that is simultaneously intricate and simple. No easy feat.
The ensemble cast consists of six St. Edward’s University students and two guest Equity actors. As expected, the Equity actors are on point. Mark Pouhé is a natural storyteller and performer with a voice to match, and Jill Blackwood’s energy and enthusiasm are perfect counterpoints to the grim situation in which the characters find themselves. Thankfully, the rest of the cast is equally proficient in offering their talents to the ensemble. Notably, Cheyenne Barton, Seth Stuart, and Ryan Mattingly flow naturally between jovial Simpsons references and the grim reality they inhabit beautifully. They show great potential through their versatility and stage presence. As a whole, the cast are completely in-sync with one another both acting as an ensemble and singing as a chorus. That’s right; this production is a musical too.
The second act of Mr. Burns is the result of pop cultural folklore brought to fruition. Mythology has evolved to represent our media while conversely withdrawn to ceremonies not unlike Ancient Greek mask theatre. Much of Haynes’ sound design is replaced by a keyboard and drum set (Suzanne Pagan and Austin Alexander respectively) which also perform for the musical numbers, but this does not detract from the production. Haynes’ designs were missed, but the live instruments were more fitting the “traditional” and possibly spiritual experience represented in Act II.
The Simpsons’ characters are no longer fond memories of pre-apocalyptic life. They are fabled figures interpreted within performances, and represented through Tara Cooper’s outstanding mask designs. On the surface the masks are made in The Simpsons image, but each one contains a primal essence reminiscent of ancient figures and deities: Homer and Marge carry profound weariness in their eyes, Edna Krabappel is the future’s equivalent of a chorus leader, Groundskeeper Willie and Mr. Burns look almost demonic, and Lisa looks strikingly like the sun. Cooper’s work singlehandedly encapsulates what our legends will (if not already have) become, the worship of pop culture above all.
However, no play is without faults, but thankfully most of them can be attributed to Washburn’s script as opposed to the machinations of the cast and crew. If it was not already self-evident, Mr. Burns demands familiarity with The Simpsons (particularly the episode Cape Feare) which most modern westerners have, but it often relies too heavily on referential humor to progress the story. It makes sense for Washburn to use a pop cultural icon as massive as The Simpsons for thematic relevance within her script, but she should have applied it with a lighter touch. However, the cast’s charm assuages much of the frustration one may experience should they be unfamiliar with the references. My other major concern comes with the musical numbers found in the second act. The cast performs them well, but they often feel less a part of cultural commentary and more like songs from an ill-conceived Simpsons musical. Still, the manner in which the characters are warped into representatives of human attributes and nature makes up for the occasional musical blunder. Otherwise my concerns are rather negligible. Despite their best efforts the cast was occasionally blocked in such a way that it resulted in awkward views for the audience, and some of their performances were not as strong in the second scene of act I as they were in the first (as well as the musical act II). Yet these are minor complaints for an all-around quality production.
Fair warning, if you truly despise The Simpsons then you probably will not enjoy this production, but even those who merely dislike The Simpsons can find an enjoyable experience in this production. Mr. Burns is one of the more intriguing productions I have seen in recent memory. Love it or hate it, it is worth seeing for the spectacle it offers and the questions it raises on the value of preserving culture and humanity’s propensity for mythology.
Mr. Burns, A Post-Electric Play continues playing at the Mary Moody Northern Theatre at St. Edward’s University every Thursday, Friday, and Saturday evening at 7:30pm and Sundays at 2pm until October 4th.
★ ★ ★ ★ ✩