In an era, not far from our own, America has suffered a nuclear meltdown. There is no power and only a few survivors. But one unlikely family is destined for greatness. Matt Groening’s dysfunctional, animated characters the Simpsons are on their way to becoming post-apocalyptic mythical figures. A new religion. The gospel according to Bart.
Such is the hilariously audacious premise of Anne Washburn’s hit comedy Mr Burns, a Post-Electric Play, which premiered in Washington, DC in 2012 before moving to New York’s off-Broadway in 2013 and then London. Now, Imara Savage directs a co-production for State Theatre Company of South Australia and Belvoir with a cast including Mitchell Butel, Esther Hannaford and Brent Hill.
Savage has a fast-growing reputation as an inventive theatre and opera director. She is currently a Resident Director at Sydney Theatre Company where she directs Moira Buffini’s Dinner in September, following The Testament of Mary in January and Hay Fever last year. Other credits include Philip Glass’s In the Penal Colony, Benjamin Britten’s Owen Wingrave, and Elliott Gyger’s Fly Away Peter for Sydney Chamber Opera, and the Tom Waits/Robert Wilson version of Woyzeck for NIDA – experience, which will be invaluable here.
Mitchell Butel as Mr Burns. Photo © Daniel Boud
A three-act play, culminating in a pop-rap-operetta, Mr Burns, a Post-Electric Play begins in a post-apocalyptic America sometime around now. To distract themselves from their dire situation, a group of survivors recall their favourite Simpsons episode: Cape Feare, which parodies the 1962 film Cape Fear and the 1991 remake starring Robert de Niro as a rapist recently out of jail and hell-bent on revenge.
The second act is set seven years later. The original group of survivors have now formed a travelling theatre troupe (one of many) and tour the country performing episodes of The Simpsons, complete with re-enacted ad breaks for products no longer necessary or available.
The play then leaps forward another 75 years for the final act, which consists of an opera called Mr Burns – a mutated version of the original Cape Feare episode – featuring a score by Michael Friedman with grabs from Gilbert and Sullivan operettas as well as pop songs by the likes of Britney Spears and Eminem.
“The nature of story-tellling is that it’s highly unreliable. Elements of the Cape Feare story still exist but it’s morphed into something else. The villain, originally played by Sideshow Bob is now played by Mr Burns – the connection being that he owned the nuclear plant,” says Savage.
“At this point, what you are witnessing is extremely heightened. It feels like it’s a church, or a Medieval morality play, or it could be Greek theatre. But basically, the Simpsons characters have been elevated to the status of gods or myths, and now this story about the near end of the world has almost become like a parable to explain what happened and how Bart Simpson was able to take us through to the other side – becoming this hero of the human race!”
The New York Times found the play so smart that it left you “dizzy with the scope and brilliance of its ideas”. Variety thought it “a refreshingly original take on the fast-growing genre of the post-apocalyptic play”, though some reviewers have been a bit mystified by it.
“I think for me the exciting premise is the need for art, stories and creativity at times of absolute crisis. When the world around them is falling apart, people go back to storytelling for comfort. I grew up watching MGM musicals on a Sunday afternoon and a lot of them were made during World War II,” says Savage.
“People come to the theatre in times of crisis because it brings them joy. It’s about being entertained and coming together as a community. And I love that this play is an homage to theatre, creativity and story-telling.”
“In some ways, I’m an unlikely candidate for the job,” admits Savage. “I did watch The Simpsons growing up but I don’t watch that much television and I don’t think I have a good sense of pop culture. But I’m interested in opera and musicals so I was really excited by the fact that it includes a hugely theatrical musical. And the musical pop references in it are really fun.”
Savage does concede that audiences will get more out of the play if they are familiar with the source material. “Of course, The Simpsons includes hundreds of pop culture references, and you get some of them and you don’t get others, and that’s fine,” she says.
“I think it’s the same with this. But a knowledge of that particular episode, or even a knowledge of the film Cape Fear, would add to your enjoyment of it.”