It takes work not to know The Simpsons. Whether or not you watch the show, most people are familiar with the characters and have seen clips or at least had lines quoted to them. In this, its 26th season, Matt Groening’s satirical cartoon about a dysfunctional family holds the records for longest-running sitcom, animated program and scripted primetime television series. Now it’s also the basis for a very strange play.
Making its West Coast premiere at American Conservatory Theatre, Mr. Burns, a post-electric play is also by far the most prominent Bay Area production to date for playwright Anne Washburn, a Berkeley native who’s long been based in New York. Her previous local productions have been limited to a couple of plays staged by Berkeley’s much smaller Just Theater. Both were dizzyingly challenging and funny, bursting with ideas, mystery and wordplay, and anyone who saw them would be curious to see what else Washburn has up her sleeve.
But then, Mr. Burns is an easy sell even for people who don’t usually go to the theater, because the core concept has such broad appeal. It’s set somewhere in Northern California in a post-apocalyptic near future. Exactly what the cataclysm was is unknown, but it involved the collapse of the electrical grid followed by meltdowns at nuclear power plants. When they’re not defending themselves against gun-toting marauders, people pass the time telling stories. In particular, they tell minute-by-minute reconstructions of half-remembered Simpsons episodes.
A co-production with Minneapolis’ Guthrie Theater that moves to Minnesota at the end of March, Mr. Burns features a potent cast of San Francisco and Minneapolis actors deftly directed by ACT’s associate artistic director, Mark Rucker.
We begin with what could just be a group of people on a camping trip, sitting around a fire trying to retell the classic Simpsons "Cape Feare" episode, based on the movie Cape Fear (mostly the 1991 Robert DeNiro remake). It's an episode that does not feature the play’s title character, Mr. Burns. Nick Gabriel’s enthusiastic storyteller, Matt, is the main recapper, but Anna Ishida’s laid-back Jenny keeps piping in with her own recollections and corrections. Kelsey Ventner’s more tentative Maria seems to have only the dimmest familiarity with the story, but she does her best to contribute as well, often getting it confused with other episodes. Ryan Williams French keeps a tense, armed lookout as Sam, occasionally joining the fun when all seems quiet.
The world catastrophe that has put the group in the open air is not fully explained, but it clearly wasn't that long ago because everyone remembers the show pretty well. And they still have provisions, such as bottled beer, from before the fall of civilization.
It’s only when a traveller, Gibson (an earnest and detail-oriented Jim Lichtsheidl), comes out of the woods that we learn that these people haven’t known each other long. Sometimes the members of the group talk a little about the current dangers or the disasters that occurred —Maria tells a resonant but overlong anecdote about an acquaintance’s quixotic quest to save a power plant—but we hear almost nothing about who they were before. Everyone carries handwritten books listing the people whom they've seen or know about, and it's become a custom that when people meet for the first time, everyone recites their lists of friends and relations, hoping for any news.
The play is two hours with one intermission, but it has a three-act structure. The first act is tantalizing, the second one is pretty dull, and the third is fascinating. Alex Jaeger’s costumes and Ralph Funicello’s sets, simple in the beginning, become more and more elaborate.
In the first act, talking about The Simpsons is simply a way for the survivors to entertain themselves. They get very fixated on getting it right, but no more than people do now. But in the second act, when we catch up with the group some years later, the reenactments have become much more elaborate. Our group has become a troupe of players who perform the episodes like plays, and they’re one of many troupes vying for scripts cobbled together from lines that this person or that one happened to remember. Not only have these fellow travelers stuck together, but the group has grown to include Tracey A. Leigh as a starring actor with a wonderful singing voice. Charity Jones also seems like a new arrival as the harried director, but that's only because her character huddled silently in a corner throughout the first act.
This scene gets bogged down in long discussions about the logistics of buying lines from random people who happen to remember them, and the politics of one troupe versus another, but the debates about realism and depth versus escapist entertainment are interesting. The core of this section, however, are the glimpses of the play within a play that the troupe is rehearsing, which include curiously long and meandering commercials (more like short plays in themselves) and delightful song-and-dance mashup of popular hits of the last four decades. Michael Friedman’s score cleverly starts a cappella and slowly adds a few acoustic instruments, and musical director David Möschler beautifully brings the music to life. (He and Andrea Wollenberg constitute the entire offstage band.)
The third act is where things get weird and wonderful. It’s 75 years later, and the Simpsons reenactments have become much more elaborate and distorted, taking on a hodgepodge of cultural references and callbacks from earlier scenes. Now the performance is highly ritualized, played not as comedy but as operatic tragedy. (This is where Friedman’s music really springs to life in a dazzling way.) The plot of that same TV episode has been conflated with memories of the great disaster into a magnificent parable of doom, with heroic paragons of virtue and delightfully outrageous melodrama villains. It's surreal and utterly captivating, with Wollenberg serving as a bizarre operatic narrator.
For all its intoxicating strangeness and pop-culture appeal, Mr. Burns isn't as strong of a script as the Washburn plays that have previously made their way out west. It feels more like a scenario than a story. There’s no plot, just a bit of world-building to explicate the premise. The first two acts cut off before they really go anywhere, raising intriguing questions only to abandon them and careen forward in time. The only real story told is the play-within-a-play in the third act, and the rest feels like setup.
Washburn’s clearly playing here with the evolution of narrative and myth, but the question of why The Simpsons in particular becomes the great mythology of the future isn't really explored or even touched on. It makes perfect sense for the first individual group to be talking about it, but why it becomes the unifying cultural currency to the exclusion of all others is an unanswered and unanswerable question, just a little joke to base the whole play around. After all, everybody loves The Simpsons.
Mr. Burns, a post-electric play runs through March 15, 2015 at American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco. For tickets and information visit act-sf.org.