Anne Washburn's Mr. Burns: A Post-Electric Play has been around since 2012, but it seems even more timely now than it did then. Are we edging closer to the kind of apocalypse Washburn envisioned? Probably. As other playwrights and authors continue to grapple with the end of the world, Washburn is the only one that uses The Simpsons, blending pop culture, humor and wit into her dystopic nightmare.
Washburn opens with a small group of survivors after some kind of nuclear meltdown. They are sitting around a fire, trying to occupy themselves by retelling a classic Simpsons episode, the one where Sideshow Bob plots to kill Bart by trapping the whole family on a houseboat. That's the "Cape Feare" episode, riffing on Cape Fear, the 1991 movie remake of the previous Cape Fear from 1962. As the survivors in Mr. Burns focus on the fragments of "Cape Feare" they can remember, they also drop desperate pieces of information about their current reality, the one where whole cities lie empty, supplies are limited, almost everyone is dead or missing, and the few who are left are wary of everyone else, guns at the ready.
From this minimalist beginning, we move seven years into the future for Act II, where the campfire group from Act I plus a few new friends are part of a traveling troupe of players whose stock in trade is now performing "Cape Feare," complete with commercials for things like chablis and Diet Coke, goodies they remember from their pre-meltdown life. We learn there are other rival companies trying to monopolize The Simpsons turf, lines from the show have become a sort of currency, and surviving is still a cut-throat business.
And in Act III, 75 years farther along, we see just how far this storytelling odyssey has taken humanity, as they now use Simpsons characters like Homer and Bart in a grand mythic pageant. The Simpsons -- or at least a version transformed, overwritten and mixed up by 75 years of retelling -- has become the ritual and scripture of the new world, layered with new meaning to try to make sense of what happened way back when.
By the end, Illinois State University's production of Mr. Burns: A Post-Electric Play plays like Greek tragedy, liturgy and Simpsons cosplay put in a blender, and that's exactly as it should be. Director Kristin L. Schoenback keeps the pace humming, with the necessary snap and crackle to hold an audience over three acts, and a strong overall vision of how and why we build stories.
The entire company is strong, doing equally well with the spontaneity of the early going and the stylization of the end. Thomas Russell and Johanna Kerber carry the narration nicely in Act I, while Megan Compton and Owen McGee step up as wannabe actors in Act II, and Sarah Ford and Everson Pierce face off sharply in Act III.
Scenic designers Allison McCarthy and John C. Stark, costume designer Amanda Bedker, lighting designer Laura Gisondi and properties manager Nick Chamernik make valuable contributions to the edgy and striking visual landscape that shifts from a dark campfire to a quick-and-dirty world of found objects and then a golden temple. I'm not sure who was responsible for the masks, but they're pretty nifty, too.
Choreographer Mattilyn Nation and fight choreographer Paul Dennhardt deserve credit for keeping things moving when they need to, and sound designer Morgan Hunter, music director Pete Guither and "chart hit" composer Jordan Coughtry up the ante on the aural side.
All in all, this Mr. Burns is provocative and snarky, with all the jagged pieces in place. It's also a helpful reminder to start memorizing Simpsons episodes now. You may need them in the coming nuclear apocalypse.
MR. BURNS: A POST-ELECTRIC PLAY
By Anne Washburn
Music by Michael Friedman. Lyrics by Anne Washburn
The School of Theatre and Dance at Illinois State University
February 16 to 24, 2018
Director: Kristin L. Schoenback
Music Director: Pete Guither
Choreographer: Mattilyn Nation
Fight Choregrapher: Paul Dennhardt
Scenic Designers: Allison McCarthy and John C. Stark
Costume Designer: Amanda Bedker
Lighting Designer: Laura Gisondi
Sound Designer: Morgan Hunter
Dramaturg: Nicole R. Kippen
Properties Master: Nick Chamernik
Chart Hit Composer: Jordan Coughtry
Assistant Director: Asa Wallace
Stage Manager: Kiara Irizarry
Cast: Paige Brantley, Erika Clark, Megan Compton, Sarah Ford, Emily Franke, Josh Harris, Lauren Hickle, Johanna Kerber, Emma Lizzio, Owen McGee, Daija Nealy, Everson Pierce, Pat Regan, Cody Rogers, Thomas Russell, Deanna Stewart and Caitlin Wolfe.
Running time: 2:30, including two 10-minute intermissions.