For multiple generations, episodes of The Simpsons contain an entire lexicon of examples and comparisons. “That’s just like one time Bart did …” Or “That reminds me of the episode when Homer said…” The show has more than 25 seasons under its belt, so avoiding the references to the bright yellow, three-fingered family is difficult. In some ways, it is to post-modern America what Shakespeare’s plays were to Elizabethan England. It’s one of the cultural artifacts we’ll leave behind, for future generations to interpret and reinterpret. At least, that’s what Anne Washburn speculates in Mr. Burns: A Post-Electric Play, currently playing at Stage West.
This densely crafted play opens on a small group of people gathered around a small fire in the not-so-distant future. The nuclear power plants have combusted, causing the end of civilization as we know it, and this small band of strangers are passing the time by remembering “Cape Feare,” the episode in which Sideshow Bob (or was it Mr. Burns? The memory is doomed in a Google-less world) is inexplicably trying to kill Bart, as an homage to the 1991 Scorsese film Cape Fear, which was a remake of the 1962 movie by the same name. Is your head spinning yet?
Good luck explaining exactly what you just saw after you leave the theater, although you’ll want to try. Mr. Burns: A Post-Electric Play in the hands of director Garrett Storms is one of the most invigorating plays to hit the Dallas/Fort Worth stages this summer. And if it all sounds out of your cultural comfort zone, not to worry, you don’t need to know The Simpsons or Cape Fear to understand what’s happening onstage, because what’s happening onstage is really about the power of storytelling.
The huddle of people in the first act, confused by the end of the world, desperate to find their families again, uses The Simpsons as a way to connect and negotiate their circumstances. The group — played by Ian Ferguson, Jessica Cavanaugh, Kelsey Leigh Ervi and a
stand-offish, hardened Paul Taylor — corrects one another’s misquoted lines, unpacks cultural references and revels in remembered one-liners. It’s unclear how long they’ve been at it, or how long they’ve even known one another, but when an outsider stumbles into their camp, played by Henry Greenberg, they search him for weapons and ask for news of the outside world. He joins into their game by lowering his voice to a growl and saying, “Oh, I’ll stay away from your son. I’ll stay away FOREVER” — a word-for-word recitation of a line they couldn’t remember, but coming from a stranger in this dark, scary world sounds dangerous. They draw their guns.
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Perhaps the most surprising thing about Mr. Burns, a play littered with surprises, is just how scary it is. In those first moments, a palpable fear permeates the stage, which pushes the play at an urgent pace. Ferguson is so invested in remembering the episode, you might think his life depended on it. Then, in the second act, which takes place seven years later, the world has not recovered and they’ve now added to their numbers, and they are now a theater troupe, competing for the rights to Simpsons episodes.They don yellow masks, and Cavanaugh as Marge wiggles into a blue wig, which in Derek Whitener's design looks like an upside-down tutu. But in all the joviality, the fear remains, and the ever-present threat of violence rests heavy on their director, played by Mikaela Krantz, in which much the same way Max Cady beleaguers the Bowden family in Cape Fear.
Come act three, they are performing a full-fledged version of the episode, which looks nothing like the Simpsons' cartoonish world, but draws similarly far-reaching cultural references. Just wait until you see what composer Michael Friedman did with Britney Spears and Kanye West. It mashes up and remixes so many elements of what you've witnessed onstage that I won't give too much away with analysis. But it's smart and Taylor is really, really scary.
The nucleus of Mr. Burns is storytelling: the stories we tell ourselves and the stories we share with each other. But it’s also about how stories age and how we treat them. As the characters unpack and then reorganize the story, they are doing something you can recognize from everyday life. It’s the same thing your grandpa is doing when he revisits a story about “back in his day,” or when your church produces a version of the nativity story Christmas after Christmas. We tell ourselves stories about ourselves, about each other, about the world around us, and about what we just saw to make sense of what has happened, what is happening and what will happen next. It reminds us to believe that what we are doing here matters, because our greatest, most palpable fear is that it doesn’t. And if that’s true, then the world might as well end. Long live The Simpsons!
Mr. Burns: A Post-Electric Play runs through September 13 at Stage West (821 W. Vickery Blvd., Fort Worth). Tickets start at $17, or tickets are available for $10 ten minutes before the curtain. More information at stagewest.org.