Simpsons fanatics unite! Anne Washburn’s Mr. Burns, a Post-Electric Play is zany, unconventionally clever and wildly entertaining.
In the event of an apocalypse, society could reconnect through any pedestaled animated show like The Simpsons. This is exactly what happens in the 135-minute performance, which first debuted back in 2012. Directors Mitchell Cushman and Simon Bloom skillfully amplify Anne Washburn’s outlook on capitalism and greed in Western culture. For all intents and purposes, the play can be understood as an innovatively extended Simpsons episode with its subtle jabs at societal conventions.
Three 45-minute acts string together an energetic re-enactment of the “Cape Feare” Simpsons episode. It depicts the fragility of life after the collapse of electrical grids that lead to nuclear plant meltdowns. While having prior knowledge of The Simpsons will help audience members understand the plot, they can learn about the episode during the first act, as campers try to lift their spirits by recounting all of the quirky details and jokes from “Cape Feare.”
Matt (Colin Doyle) leads this retelling with superb voice impressions of Sideshow Bob, Homer and Moe from The Simpsons. Jenny (Tracy Michailidis) and Maria (Katherine Cullen) also chime in and provide their thoughts on the show. The group quickly takes to newcomer Gibson (Damien Atkins), who performs a wicked singsong version of “Three Little Maids from School Are We.” It is not all fun and games, however; towards the end of the act, Maria juxtaposes the comedic lightness with a monologue about the inevitable risk of radiation.
Fast-forward seven years; the same group has become a makeshift acting troupe in the competitive theatre variety show business. As rival companies buy the rights from popular shows, the group scrambles to get their hands on any Simpsons material. The play sets precedence on storytelling through means outside of the traditional Shakespearean theatre. It reflects the very essence that was once theatre, acquiring content through competition. Similar to nuclear radiation, popular culture also prevails throughout the years, transforming and depositing meaning in the strangest of places.
Throughout the dances in the second act, we are reminded of long lost pre-apocalypse luxuries such as diet coke and hot water. This scene is one of the most thought provoking, as the cast begins to argue about the messages delivered to audiences through the companies’ work. According to Washburn, creating light and mindless entertainment is a challenge because “meaning is everywhere,” whether you like it or not.
The third act is set 75 years in the future. Like the episode, the cast all pose on a boat wearing character masks, as they have taken on the personas of the family members themselves, thanks to costume designer Lindsay Junkin. The long-winded finale resembles an operetta, with cast members in capes parading down laneways while carrying haunting green LED lights. Singing the musical scores of Michael Friedman, Bart, played by Rielle Braid, stole the show. Braid performed as the character with the same pronunciation and devious movements as the unlikely hero.
Sideshow Bob has somehow turned into Mr. Burns for the third act, a huge but essential deviation from the episode. Puppet designer Marcus Jamin works his magic to represent Mr. Burns as the ultimate villain, with massive skeletal fingers that dip over the stage. There are plenty of digs at popular culture in this act; Mr. Burns' rendition of Britney Spear’s “Toxic” is one of the best and eeriest of them all.
After the family has been tied up on stage, Bart and Burns battle with light sabers. This is a little dragged out, but still amusing. The play ends with a clever dismantling of Mr. Burn’s puppet. The violent progression and distortion of the characters in the play may reflect societal degradation based on capitalism and greed. We are left to create our own meaning from this ending.
The play pays homage to the show through its set design by Ken MacKenzie. There are a lot of details with Bart’s chalkboard writings glowing under a black light and cartoonish Simpsons themed backdrops. The third act ultimately surpasses the one-dimensional theme of the first two acts and the puppets become quite interactive with the audience. After Mr. Burns' demise, the audience meets the crew who powered the entire show through riding a bike. Honorable mention goes to the lighting designer Nick Blais, who designed the non-electrical show using flashlights and lanterns.
Although it is a lengthy production with a few misquotes, Mr. Burns, a Post-Electric Play delivers an inspiring spectacle that is sure to wow audience members, so grab a Duff beer and leave electricity behind.
This performance will be on stage at the Historic Aztec theatre on Gerrard St. East until June 7.
photo credit: David Leyes