MCT Proposal - Mr. Burns: A Post-Electric Play
Mr. Burns: A Post-Electric Play, by Anne Washburn
Directed by Sanaya Forbes
Act 3 music direction by Abby Brockamp
Anne Washburn’s imaginative dark comedy – a play with music featuring songs by Washburn and Michael Friedman – propels us forward nearly a century, following a new civilization stumbling into its future.
After the collapse of civilization, a group of survivors share a campfire and begin to piece together the plot of The Simpsons episode "Cape Feare" entirely from memory. Seven years later, this and other snippets of pop culture (sitcom plots, commercials, jingles, and pop songs) have become the live entertainment of a post-apocalyptic society, sincerely trying to hold onto its past. Seventy-five years later, these are the myths and legends from which new forms of performance are created.
A paean to live theater, and the resilience of Bart Simpson through the ages, Mr. Burns is an animated exploration of how the pop culture of one era might evolve into the mythology of another.
Plays about theater can be very…trite. It often feels like that kind of show is created solely for those who are in it, rather than the audience it’s presented to. And truthfully, this is not an inaccurate reflection of the way theater is viewed by the world at large: a luxury, a distraction, a novelty for an audience with disposable income. And while a lot of big commercial theater is indeed all of those things, attitudes like that ignore the very real fact that theater is, at its core, storytelling. Something humans have been doing since before language. It’s how we relate to one another. It’s how we pass on history. It’s how we create culture. I see this play as an exploration of the evolution of storytelling – how it can help us connect, how it can be corrupted, and how it can help us move forward. Which is a pretty lofty goal for a play that is essentially a game of telephone with a Simpson’s episode, but bear with me on this.
The audience walks in to see a small campfire with a series of ragged chairs surrounding it. There is no main – instead, a huge curtain made from roughly sewn together bedsheets covers the entire proscenium opening. As the lights come down on the house, a projection starts: an old ad for diet coke, a scene from cape fear, Simpsons re-runs, clips from old news reports on nuclear fallout. The clips get shorter and somewhere in the distance, a siren starts. As it reaches an uncomfortable volume, it suddenly stops and the stage goes black. Silence for a moment, lights up, and act one begins.
Act one is storytelling at its most primal and most innocent – a group of people collectively trying to piece together a narrative around the campfire. It establishes the baseline that the rest of the show will build on – moments of humor and connection, with an underlying current of danger. Much like the characters are piecing together this episode of the Simpsons, the audience is trying to piece together the show. What happened? Where are we? What is the danger hidden in the shadows that these characters are so terrified by. By the end, the lights narrow down to Gibson, a lone person on stage, performing an impromptu version of “Three Little Maids” from the Hot Mikado as the other actors leave the stage. The lights cut out and the curtain falls, revealing a huge wall pieced together from garbage – old cabinets, corrugated metal, wood planks, fabric, cardboard, etc. There are two large metal doors center stage that serve as the main opening for the other set pieces that come through. The wall feels massive, overbearing, and grand.
By act two, seven years after the previous scene, the world has evolved. Simpsons episodes have replaced Shakespeare, with different companies producing different versions of certain scripts and much contention between warring factions. The storytelling is more elaborate. Props, sets, clever stagecraft, acapella medleys. Commercials hawking the concept of a normal life to a paying audience. It still provides connection between the members of the company, but the danger has changed– this is their livelihood and people are desperate to survive. The danger isn’t unknown at this point – it’s surviving in a capitalist society and what that can do to those who make art for a living. It’s living in nuclear fallout and dealing with mortality. It’s trying to hold on to a shred of humanity in the wake of these things. Act two, and thus the first half of the play, end in tragedy.
And then post intermission, act three takes a sharp turn. Instead of focusing on the artists telling the story, we focus on the story itself and how it has evolved - seventy-five years into the future, long after anyone who remembered the original episodes of the Simpsons. The story has ballooned into an almost ritualistic, operatic Greek tragedy with very little left of the original story except for the basic characters, who become symbolic pastiches of character archetypes. It is a story of danger, survival, and the triumph of the human spirit in the face of adversity – a folk-tale passed down through the ages.
Last year in the PRC, my main question to directors as a member was: Why now, why this play, why this community? It’s something that I feel is an integral question to ask myself as a director. And honestly, I don’t know how much longer this particular play is going to be relevant to a modern audience – as the social capital of the Simpsons declines, so does the play’s conceit. But in the current climate of the country that continually undervalues art as a medium (see: the current strikes in Hollywood, the vast number of theater closures across the country, the Majestic’s own struggles with funding), I think people need to be reminded why telling stories is important. It’s what brings us together, it’s what shapes our culture, and in the end, it’s what makes us human.