Which elements of our culture would survive a nuclear disaster? And how do the stories with which we entertain or define ourselves change over time? These are just some of the questions American playwright Anne Washburn asks in her 2012 work Mr Burns, a Post-Electric Play.
Set in the wake of a widespread nuclear power-plant failure that has left America without electricity, its population decimated, the play opens on a band of survivors huddled around a bin fire, drinking beer and passing the time by piecing together an episode of The Simpsons from memory (a comparison by the New York Times’ Ben Brantley of this scenario to Boccaccio’s 14th-century set of stories within a story, The Decameron, is particularly apt).
Mitchell Butel, Esther Hannaford, Jacqy Phillips and Brent Hill in Mr Burns, a Post-Electric Play. Photos © Brett Boardman
The reconstruction of Cape Feare (the second episode of The Simpsons’ fifth season) is led by Matt – an obvious Simpsons aficionado played fervently by Brent Hill – and Jenny (Esther Hannaford), who throws herself into the reminiscence with enthusiasm. Sam (Ezra Juanta) chimes in every now and again while Colleen (Jude Henshall) huddles fearfully in the background. Jacqy Phillips plays Maria, a generation older, who, though broadly familiar with The Simpsons, contributes more from her memories of the film Cape Fear (a 1991 remake of a 1962 film based on the 1957 thriller novel The Executioners by John D. MacDonald), upon which the Simpsons episode riffs.
The characters aren’t able to piece together the Cape Feare episode exactly – Matt recalls camera angles and motifs from the soundtrack in detail, particularly when they are borrowed from the film Cape Fear – but they often struggle with the dialogue and timeline, misremembering and correcting each other and building a close but imperfect simulacrum of the episode.
Underpinning all this is a pervasive sense of menace. The survivors are armed and their banter is periodically cut short as they jump at the slightest sound from outside the camp, director Imara Savage deftly balancing tension and humour.
With no electronic communication, it is through a newcomer, Gibson (played by Mitchell Butel), that the survivors and the audience are able to glean news about the rest of the country. Gibson also fills in a hole in the episode – not through having seen it, but from having heard it quoted. His value to the group only increases when it becomes apparent that he’s familiar with the work of Gilbert and Sullivan, which also features prominently in the episode. And in a post-electric world, his atlas is like gold.
Jude Henshall, Brent Hill and Jacqy Phillips
Set seven years later, the second act sees the small band of survivors become a traveling theatre troupe, recreating episodes of The Simpsons – advertisements and all – and competing with other groups to expand their repertoire in a world where accurate lines from the show are valuable currency.
The troupe’s offering also encompasses a medley of pop songs – Paula Arundell (who also plays Marge) leading a series of chart-toppers – the entertainment a salve for and distraction from the unceasing fear of violence and radiation.
Mitchell Butel, Paula Arundell, Jude Henshall, Ezra Juanta, Brent Hill, Jacqy Phillips and Esther Hannaford
It is in this act that the inventiveness of Jonathon Oxlade’s set and costumes really comes to the fore. The troupe’s theatrical aesthetic, designed to recreate the television experience as nearly as possible, is compiled of an array of scavenged items and crude jerry-rigged systems that are both pathetically primitive – see the bulging white cartoon eyes – yet also oddly effective.
The final act is set 75 years later and the theatrical tradition has evolved into a kind of ritualistic music-drama – drawing on ideas from Greek theatre and medieval morality plays – in which the characters of The Simpsons have become god-like mythological characters, their costumes idealised and ceremonial.
Esther Hannaford and Mitchell Butel
But the real meat of the play is in the first and – to a lesser extent – the slightly bloated second act, the third coming across as a kind of flippant coda, with too little material stretched thin over too long a distance. While lyrics cribbed from Eminem and musical motifs from Cape Fear and H.M.S Pinafore dropped into Michael Friedman’s score wring laughs from the audience (and Butel gives a show-stealing performance slithering onto the stage as a sparkling, high-camp personification of evil in the form of Mr Burns), this act feels unsatisfying and superficial compared to the more complex explorations of story-telling that comes before. The singing is uneven and for all the epic mythology – drawn from The Simpsons as well as the apocalyptic disaster itself, names of victims listed à la September 11 – the finale fails to land much of an emotional punch.
Mr Burns is a fascinating thought experiment. The Simpsons episode is a dizzying kaleidoscope of cultural references, to which Washburn adds several more layers, investigating the fragility of memory – both individual and communal – and the terrifying prospect of coping with a large-scale disaster with information shared only through third or fourth-hand spoken accounts of dubious reliability. (It is unclear why, in this post-electric world, written language doesn’t play a more significant role as a means of storing and transmitting information.) But for all that, it doesn’t quite gel as a cohesive piece of theatre.
It is the first act, with its fascinating exploration of aural story-telling – through the Simpsons episodes and the post-disaster experiences of the survivors – that is most compelling. This is also where the actors really shine, Phillips delivering a profoundly gripping monologue about the paralysing fear of radiation poisoning, Hannaford and Hill’s nerdy repartee sparkling, and Butel giving us a fine solo rendition of Three Little Maids from School from The Mikado. But if Mr Burns isn’t as satisfying as the play’s fascinating premise promises, it will still give audiences plenty to think about – and for those of us born in the 80s who grew up on these Simpsons episodes, it’s always fun to reminisce.
Mr Burns, a Post-Electric Play is at Belvoir St Theatre until June 25