Did you watch The Simpsons growing up? Do you watch it now? If your knowledge of this decades-long animated series extends past identification of the names ‘Bart’ and ‘Homer’ to at least vague recognition of characters like Ned Flanders and Sideshow Bob, you could do worse than spend an evening at the Woolly Mammoth’s Mr. Burns: A Post-Electric Play.
Mr. Burns is the final play in the Woolly’s season built around the question, “Does our civilization have an expiration date?” The show’s three acts provide a grim yet humorous view through the eyes of a small group of Americans as they attempt to process and rebuild in the months, years, and decades after a nuclear apocalypse that has destroyed the grid and left us with no radio, TV, or internet.
A more specific question it seems to be attempting to answer is, “What pieces of today’s culture would we be most driven to recreate if our civilization ended?” For my part, I’d put money on sports and alcohol—and I’m sure other dedicated readers of this blog will join me in the belief that a certain late-morning/early-afternoon communal meal, gab fest, and hangover-reduction session would continue in one form or another.
But I suppose the idea of a cultural touchstone such as The Simpsons bringing us together isn’t beyond the realm of plausibility.
The first act centers around a small group huddled together at a makeshift camp, working together to recall and retell a favorite Simpsons episode as a way to pass the time. In the second act, we jump ahead seven years and see how a burgeoning entertainment industry is growing up around live recreations of not only Simpsons episodes, but even commercials to fill the breaks.
Long-time fans of The Simpsons, even casual ones, will enjoy the sparks of recognition and nostalgia evoked as little tidbits from their memories are gradually pulled to the surface. Some of the actors do quite impressive impersonations of the beloved characters.
But Mr. Burns doesn’t rely solely on the warm glow of nostalgia or thrill of imitation. There is a quiet scene in the first act revolving around the search for lost loved ones and an explosive scene in the second act where a member of the troupe questions the importance of their work, both of which bring into heart-wrenching focus the desperate realities of trying to survive and find meaning after the world as we know it has come to an end.
The third act leaps ahead by decades and provides a glimpse at an operatic production by the theater troupe where The Simpsons’ has been elevated to a cultural role not unlike the one Shakespeare and his plays occupy today, where artists feel free to pluck bits and pieces to lend a familiar structure or emotional resonance to a work that bares little resemblance to its purported source.
Plenty of other modern pop culture icons are also referenced in ways that are enjoyable at least to the degree they allow the audience to exchange knowing smiles and nods of acknowledgement.
I found the final act jarring, due to it not explicitly continuing the narrative of the first two acts, as well as the fact that it’s, well, an opera (albeit, a very modern one). Reflecting on it later, I’ve come to appreciate it more and more for what it communicated implicitly about human nature, culture, and resiliency.
I suppose the same could be said for the first two acts as well, though the third was the one that took the most processing.
Bottom line: While perhaps not one of the Woolly Mammoth’s most memorable productions, Mr. Burns is at various points touching, thought-provoking, and funny. I’d say that makes it a worthwhile way to spend an evening, though you definitely should skip it if you don’t have at least a few episodes of The Simpsons under your belt (which was Cori Sue’s problem).
Mr. Burns runs at the Woolly Mammoth Theatre until July 1st, with tickets starting at $35.