(This review is written by American-Statesman freelance arts critic Claire Christine Spera.)
If the apocalypse happened tomorrow and there were survivors, what would they carry forward in their collective memory?
For playwright Anne Washburn, the answer is “The Simpsons.”
Enter “Mr. Burns, a post-electric play,” a dark comedy that imagines a world where an unidentified global disaster has brought together a group of strangers searching for a point of cultural commonality.
Put on by St. Edward’s University at the Mary Moody Northen Theatre, “Mr. Burns” explores how a shared culture can bring strangers together, oftentimes in unexpected ways. In this case, an episode of “The Simpsons” is, quite literally, the jumping-off point of a new era on Earth.
Amidst fears of radiation poisoning and strangers with loaded guns entering their hovel, Jill (Jill Blackwood of Zach Theatre), Marc (Marc Pouhé, also of Zach Theatre), Cheyenne (Cheyenne Barton, St. Edward’s student) and Ryan (Ryan Mattingly, St. Edward’s student) begin to reenact “Simpsons” episode “Cape Feare.” The common language — this artifact of a civilization that no longer exists — bonds the survivors.
Seven year later, things have gotten much more serious, in a funny way: Rachel and Madison (Rachel Dunk and Madison Williams, St. Edwards students) have joined the crew, serving as showrunners. The reenactment has evolved to mimic cable television, with commercials for things of the past (Diet Coke — that bubbly goodness. What they wouldn’t give for just a sip!).
We see how the episode has evolved from seven years ago, the actors changing and adding to the episode to reflect their creative leanings, their need to relive aspects of American pop culture that no longer exist; they’re grappling with how their lives have changed. They sing snippets from songs by Britney Spears and Lady Gaga, and even Baha Men’s “Who Let the Dogs Out.”
Seventy-five years later, the episode is almost unrecognizable. It’s evolved into a strange, otherworldly musical (live music by pianist Suzanne Pagan and percussionist Austin Alexander) in which “Simpsons” characters Homer, Marge, Lisa, Bart, Mr. Burns, Sideshow Bob, Itchy and Scratchy are identifiable by the creepy cartoon masks they don (the handiwork of Tara Cooper).
In grappling with the “post-electric” situation they find themselves in, these onetime strangers have combatted cultural demise. We come to understand — and identify — with these people. They don’t just want to exist; they want to live. They’ve found meaning.