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"Mr, Burns, A Post-Electric Play" At Playwrights Horizon, Saturday, October 12th, 2013, Reviewed

The Simpsons face the apocalypse

One of the Simpsons greatest musical moments was Side Show Bob singing the entire score to Gilbert And Sullivan’s “HMS Pinafore” before he murders Bart Simpson on the “Cape Feare” episode and during “Mr. Burns, A Post-Electric Play” it takes over the entire third act. 

Or at least a form of it does.

It is 83 years after a man made disaster has destroyed life as know it in the US and there is no more electricity, maybe a million people are left alive but people still need to be entertained? In the two earlier acts, playwrite Anna Washburn has shown how the Simpsons have become part of the entertainment repertoire, but a jump of 75 years between the second and third acts has given the re-enactment the time to change itself into myth. Side Show Bob has become Mr. Burns, undoubtedly due to the nuclear reactor being such a primary villain in the end of the world, the Simpsons. Itchy And Scratchy and Burns are mythical creatures of evil, and Bart Simpson is now a symbol of American resilience in the face of the end of civilization. The music is one part Gilber And Sullivan, one part faux opera and one part hits of the early 21st century, composed by Michael Friedman, it does its job and then some but couldn’t exist outside the play.

The “Cape Feare” episode is the one where Side Show Bob gets away with attempting to kill Bart, who is put in the witness protection and  is followed by Bob to “Terror River” in a parody of the two movies “Cape Fear”.

In the second act, 75 years earlier, one of the members of an acting troop has this to say when another member thinks the work they do, re-enacting Simpson shows as remembered by friends and strangers and paid for line by line. “Meaning is everywhere we get meaning for free whether we like it or not, meaningless entertainment on the other hand is really hard”. That’s true but it isn’t the point of “Mr. Burns”. The first two acts, the first immediately after an unspecified man made disaster, and the following act seven years after that, are about memory. Washburn claims Stephen King’s “The Stand” and Euripides “Orestes” are influences,. I can’t see the latter but definitely once you hear of the King novel, lots of backstory is instantaneously visible. You get a sense of what is happening in the background while in the foreground, a handful of people remember the “Cape Feare” episode and try and retell it. A strange approaches with news from the devastation occurring everywhere and to share a Simpson line. Then they pull out notebooks and share names of friends and family with each other, to see if anybody has discovered their fates (a ritual  Washburn adapted from being in New York on 9-11) .

The first act has some funny moments but it is a little boring and anyway, yet again, what I excpected from a play… or at least hoped for, I didn’t get. What I wanted was a Rashomon type retelling of Cape Feare with memory changing and adapting it to show the effects of memory on story. And I got that to a point but not where I wanted.

I would mention the Gospels as another influence on the play, the way in which the time between the death of Christ and the writing of the Gospels changed the story into myth.

The second act is better, with a Chart songs medley of  Eminem and Britney Spears songs being quite fun but still, it doesn’t quite work. In the actual episode there is an hysterical scene where Homer can’t figure out to answer to his  new name, it falls flat in the second act and while the sense of future is well done, the characters are so irrelevant, I haven’t even mentioned them here. Still, this strange future is really interesting and captured with very little.

The last act takes it all elsewhere, into a world where they are finally dealing with who the survivors are and what they have done.

This is very clever stuff and very well done but I wish it was a little better. It feels minor key but the story is write large as though the apocalypse is so overwhelming why does it talk to us today? I mentioned the Gospels and at its heart I feel that in dealing with myth and memory, “Mr. Burns” has something great in its story, something bigger than it feels to be.

Grade: B+

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