Assuming I survive the initial catastrophe, my end of the world scenario would probably play out like it does in Anne Washburn’s Mr. Burns, A Post-Electric Play. The gnawing dread would be overwhelming, so I’d focus on some collective cultural experience as a distraction from how the world is now irrevocably fucked. What’s brilliant about Washburn’s play, which manages to be both high-concept and emotionally resonant, is how the cultural experience changes.
A group of lonely souls gather around a fire. They are trying to remember every line from “Cape Feare,” an early episode of The Simpsons. You remember that one, right? Bart and his family go into a witness protection program to hide from Sideshow Bob. He follows them, and after stepping on several inconveniently-placed rakes, he corners Bart on a house boat. Some of the survivors remember the episode better than others. We learn that there is no more electricity, and millions died after the nuclear fallout. A stranger approaches, and the group is cautious. After lowering their weapons, the stranger gives the group a crucial line from the episode. This is how they learn to endure.
Washburn weaves perfect little flourishes into her play, which finds levity amid the gloom. I’m a longtime Simpsons fan – I even belong to a club where we get together and quote episodes in a safe space – so the opening act is instantly relatable. I resisted the urge to shout out the line the characters have trouble remembering, only to realize this is precisely what Washburn wants. There is comfort, even relief, when you and some strangers independently arrive at a common bond. They laugh, and so do we. Whenever the play gets too easy-going, a dose of harsh reality is thrown in. The group is terrified and misses their loved ones, after all, and there is a sequence in the first act where everyone shares a list of names to see who may have survived. They already know they should not hope. What matters is preserving the ritual.
Preservation is paramount in the second and third act, which take places years after the first. The same group is trying to remember “Cape Feare,” except now performance matters more than memory. The precise details of the episode are ancillary, and the characters, all amateur actors, wants to evoke the comfort of television. Gibson (Chris Genebach), the stranger from the first act, is so worried that he goes into a panic. Other players like Colleen (Amy McWilliams) and Quincy (Erika Rose) try to console him, while Matt (Steve Rosen) and Jenny (Kimberly Gilbert) disengage from his raw fear. The entire cast is effective because they downplay their hopes and reserves of grief. We begin to see ourselves in their desperate eyes.
The last act abstracts the episode even further. Using The Simpsons as a skeleton, the actors perform a play within a play. In terms of intent and tone, the performance is like grotesque vaudevillian propaganda. The members of The Simpsons are more sincere, and the villain is no longer a buffoon but a sadistic monster. It’s strange and entertaining; to the credit of director Steve Cosson, no one seems to realize The Simpsons was originally an irreverent, ironic show. The terrific sets and costumes are a weird combination of steam-punk and distorted cartoons.
Washburn offers little explanation about what happens, exactly, between the second and third act. There are enough details so that we can see why the play is being performed as it is, and what it must mean to a post-apocalyptic audience. Through a group of energetic performers people and a memorable cartoon, Mr. Burns makes us think about what stories mean and how they are absolutely necessary.
Mr. Burns, A Post-Electric Play is at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company until July 1st. Buy tickets here!