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What if the world as we know it ended tomorrow? You and a few strangers survived. How would you get through the nights? How would you connect to the world that you knew and rebuild for the future?
The new play “Mr. Burns, a Post-Electric Play” — currently in its world premiere run at the Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company — considers these questions.
The curtain rises on an America that is just coming to grips with a nuclear apocalypse. The survivors are traumatized. They are separated from their loved ones. News, both general and personal, is hard to come by.
Five survivors are sitting and discussing an old episode of “The Simpsons,” in which villainous Sideshow Bob tries to kill the young Bart Simpson in a story arc that parallels the classic thriller “Cape Fear.” With the help of a Gilbert and Sullivan score, Bart is able to outwit Sideshow Bob.
“I was interested in the ways that memory — and necessity — change narratives; I was interested in what stories would persist after the loss of a civilization, the different reasons they would be retained, and I was interested in storytelling: in what parts of a narrative are essential, and what the role of storytelling would be in a post-industrial society,” playwright Anne Washburn wrote in the playbill.
Just as in “The Simpsons” iconic opening sequence, “Mr. Burns” begins with five people gathered on a couch and staring into a glowing object.
Unlike the cartoon, it isn’t a television set they’re focused on — this is a post-electric world after all — it is a trash can fire. The five aren’t related to each other either; they are relative strangers who are struggling to connect through finding something in common.
One character, Matt, strikes on “The Simpsons,” and the rest of the group follows along. Suddenly, recounting “The Simpsons” becomes a way of remembering the past — a collective oral history.
A New Foundation
The audience quickly realizes the group is able to create a bond through the pop culture narrative.
The familiar quotidian practice of remembering a nightly sitcom helps the characters who must now survive a new reality to stay sane and cope with their shared nightmare.
As the play goes on, the episode begins to morph from a comforting storytelling exercise to the basis for a new society.
Washburn said the idea of taking a pop culture narrative and pushing it past the apocalypse had been in the back of her head for years.
It wasn’t until the play’s director, Steve Cosson, contacted her with news of a commissioning grant, however, that she began to sculpt the nascent pop culture storyline into a fully realized production.
Washburn, Cosson and actors from the Civilians theater company in New York headed to a rehearsal space, which was, perhaps appropriately, in an empty bank vault under Wall Street. One actor began recounting “The Simpsons” episode, and the play began to take shape. Each character in the final play, incidentally, is named after the original actor who began to shape them and the first act is taken almost verbatim from those early sessions.
Washburn was also closely involved with bringing Woolly’s current production to fruition. She worked and reworked the script until almost the last minute.
A lot of work went into this production, she said, but she eventually gave over control and let the actors marinate with her words and the story.
High Art and Diet Coke
Like many of Woolly’s productions, this show is for the adventurous theatergoer. It is fun. It is thoughtful. Some parts, act I, for example, are stronger and the characters are more fully realized. Parts of the show are amusing, while others fall flat.
But one measure of a production’s success is how long the audience talks about it after leaving. My companion and I, at least, talked about it for hours — and that was probably the point.
We concluded that a traumatized post-industrial modern culture wouldn’t necessarily cling to the plays of William Shakespeare or the poetry of William Butler Yeats for comfort, at least not at first.
If Washburn’s scenario is accurate, most of us would miss television, the Internet, pop music we love to hate, bad wine, good wine and Diet Coke.
High art, Washburn suggests, requires moments of leisure to create, and leisure would be in short supply in a post-apocalyptic world.
“I think that high art would remain,” Washburn said. “But, you get Yeats and Shakespeare from a society that is stable.”