Mr. Burns, a post-electric play — Image via guthrietheater.org

Mr. Burns, a post-electric play

Guthrie Theater &
American Conservatory Theater
Directed by Mark Rucker

If you were lucky enough to live through the apocalypse and, with even more luck, found yourself in the company of other survivors, what stories from your previous life would you tell? This is one of the essential questions posed in the Guthrie Theater’s production of Mr. Burns, a post-electric play, written by Anne Washburn and directed by Mark Rucker. In the world Washburn has created, the immediate past is understandably too traumatic, too riddled with death to talk about for sustained periods of time, meaning that the stories that surface first and linger are the ones that provide comfort, laughter, and a reminder of better times.

Early in Mr. Burns, we are told that nuclear reactors across the U.S. have exploded and America has suddenly found itself entirely without electricity. Amidst the mass illness and hysteria, a bedraggled group of survivors (containing an almost even mix of Guthrie veterans and members of the co-producing American Conservatory Theater) finds itself, several weeks after the disaster, gathered around a fire sharing stories. Rather than opening with the tales of horror that each character could no doubt easily provide, the group attempts to reconstruct a story that temporarily alleviates their pain: Cape Feare, the iconic 1993 Simpsons episode in which the Simpsons move to a houseboat in hopes of protecting Bart from the murderous Sideshow Bob. It’s the one with all the rakes.

Mr. Burns, a post-electric play — Image via guthrietheater.orgOver the course of their narration, the storytellers grow visibly excited as they remember new details of the story and stumble upon previously hard-to-recall lines. Despite the fact that many details are remembered incorrectly — something that drove me crazy, but in a good way; I haven’t been to many plays where I’ve had to restrain myself from yelling out corrections to the actors — Cape Feare quickly becomes the glue that holds the group together. This isn’t to say that the story or the process of reconstructing it is a cure-all; the narration is frequently interrupted by single characters sharing bleak stories about recent events. Jenny (Anna Ishida) cuts in to obsess about the dangers of nuclear fallout, and Maria (Kelsey Venter) tells us about a recent encounter she had with a man who had attempted unsuccessfully to postpone a meltdown in the town where he lived. Similarly, Gibson (Jim Lichtscheidl), who stumbles upon the group about halfway through Act One, reminds us of the extent of the carnage when, upon his arrival, every member of the group reads out a list of up to ten names of people they love, people they have not seen since disaster struck. It is revealed that each survivor carries a book where they have recorded the names of the people they have met while fleeing the chaos. The books function collectively as a catalogue of the living. When it is established that none of Gibson’s names are helpful to the group, they drift back to talking about Cape Feare, which, in its small way, is able to calm and console them.

As the group continues their narration, the task of remembering Cape Feare grows increasingly urgent, and several characters become visibly frustrated when they can’t recall key scenes or lines and hyperbolically exuberant when they can. The reconstruction has, at this point, become symbolically linked to either success or failure in the minds of the people creating it, and it’s not hard to understand why. They don’t have the power to keep the world from falling apart, but together, they just might have the power to reassemble an entire episode of The Simpsons. What’s more, Cape Feare exists as proof that their crumbling world existed, that there was a time when it was more or less intact, and that they were all there to witness it. Cape Feare reassures each person that their experiences were real, since they overlapped with the experiences of others, even if only for twenty-two minutes.

Act Two begins seven years later in a world that is still without electricity or any other technologically advanced infrastructure. If Cape Feare united people in Act One, in this world of harsh survivalism, it, and other stories like it, have evolved into a means through which people compete with and exploit one another. Like the first act of the play, which moved seamlessly between the reiteration of Cape Feare and the sharing of stories from the present world, Act Two features the group we met in Act One rehearsing scenes from a variety of Simpsons episodes but also discussing mounting social tensions. As the act continues, we are able to deduce that several rival production companies have been attempting to remember, record, and perform lost television shows and that, in order for them to do this, members of the public are paid for each legitimate line of dialogue they can remember. (I was relieved to know that in this particular post-apocalyptic society, I would have a marketable skill.) Whereas we get the sense that the restoration of lost entertainment was happily collaborative at first, it seems that, motivated by financial desperation, some people have begun making up false lines, taking credit for lines they did not actually recall, and resorting to violence when they feel that they have not been compensated fairly. As it was in the first act, the power of story is foregrounded: It can unite and comfort, or it can disenfranchise and divide.

Mr. Burns, a post-electric play — Image via guthrietheater.orgWhat emerges most clearly from the first two acts is not only the power of narrative to both strengthen and destroy but also the importance of ritual in human life. The aforementioned reading of names in Act One is mirrored in Act Two by the attempted recreation of the widely canonized ritual of the American family sitting down together and watching television at the end of a long day. We see the importance placed upon this ritual when Sam (Ryan Williams French) triumphantly scavenges a piece of broken mirror that, along with candles, is used to create the glow that televisions emitted before the grid exploded. Once the TV is artificially restored to its pre-apocalyptic glory, the group continues to explore ritual by rehearsing a commercial to be performed between acts of The Simpsons episode that they are staging. The commercial features a wife (Tracy A. Leigh) walking through the front door and greeting her husband (Lichtscheidl) after a hard day at the office. What follows is a long dialogue about food, which begins with fairly standard advertising speak but quickly devolves into heady reminisce about the foods the group misses most.

Despite beautifully illustrating that advertising is, at its root, stories about desire, the commercial rehearsals are purposely awkward and unfocused, largely because they are fictionalizing a world that no longer exists. Because these ritualized depictions of American life are so clichéd, so divorced from the way most people actually lived, even before the apocalypse, it becomes evident that it is not the content of the rituals that makes them powerful but the act of repeating them. Rituals, like stories, become powerful only when they are used, re-used, and used again. And, as becomes clear over the course of the play, the stories and rituals that last don’t do so because they perfectly convey truth but rather because of the emotions that they evoke in those who use them.

Mr. Burns, a post-electric play — Image via guthrietheater.orgSeeing as it is one of the most surreal and disturbing pieces of theater I’ve ever seen, I don’t want to say too much about the final act of the play. What I will say is that it combines elements of Greek tragedy, medieval morality plays, musicals, experimental theater, and Cape Feare. Seriously, what more could you ask for? While both touching and horrifying, Act Three is a profound meditation on how stories adapt to the needs of the societies that tell them. As every fan of The Simpsons is well aware, good stories can survive almost infinite recycles. In fact, Mr. Burns points out that Cape Feare is based on the film Cape Fear, starring Robert De Niro, which was based on a film starring Gregory Peck, which was based on a novel by John D. MacDonald, which was probably based on something else. In this spirit, the third act of Mr. Burns explicitly demonstrates and celebrates how stories morph, mix, fragment, and flow into each other by flawlessly weaving together bits of dialogue, both remembered and misremembered, from the previous two acts and Cape Feare, as well as snippets and soundbites from hundreds if not thousands of years’ worth of culture. Stories don’t just die, Mr. Burns tells us; like humanity, they keep trudging along. And the ones that last are the ones that can adapt.

Although Mr. Burns is in no way a play solely about The Simpsons, it is certainly intricately connected with it. This begs the question of whether or not one need be a fan of the show in order to make the play worthwhile. As a semi-rabid follower of The Simpsons since 1989 (I still get a little miffed when I remember how the principal made me turn my Bart Simpson t-shirt inside out so no one would be scarred by his advice against the having of cows), I have a difficult time answering this question, but my guess is that, while intense fandom of the series as a whole is probably not necessary to enjoy the play, familiarity with Cape Feare probably is. I know that the two ladies sitting next to me, ladies who mentioned during intermission that they had never seen a single episode of The Simpsons, were visibly frustrated at some turns and bored at others. (As a side note, who are these ladies? I don’t think they can even be from outer space, because I’m pretty sure aliens are watching Cape Feare on some advanced satellite system as we speak.) In any case, I don’t think the play will be relegated to cult status in the future and that only fans of The Simpsons will keep reviving and watching it, but I do think that a quick viewing of Cape Feare before the show will exponentially enhance the experience.

While the Guthrie no doubt has to perform a significant number of plays that they know will pay the bills, I would love to see them take more risks of the sort they took with Mr. Burns. If the productions favored by Red Eye, Mixed Blood, and Minnesota Fringe, are any indication, there is an audience in the Twin Cities for theater in a more experimental vein. It would be great to see the Guthrie reach out to this audience a little more often. Mr. Burns, a post electric play, shows at The Guthrie until May 10.

Published by

Emily Anderson

is completing her Ph.D. in English at the University of Minnesota. She teaches literature and writing at several local educational institutions.

3 thoughts on “Mr. Burns, a post-electric play”

  1. Thanks for the detailed synopsis of the play (not including the third act, of course). I have not seen the play, but my curiosity was peaked when, at the showing of “The Crucible,” two women commented on the show while we were waiting in line for the restroom facilities. Although they were of different ages and from different groups, both said similar things, mostly along the lines, “I don’t know what I think of the play. Or even if I should be watching it.”

    1. Emily! I was driving home today and realized why “peaked” was so wrong. When I wrote it, it looked wrong, but I just kept writing. Gaah! I meant to use “piqued” as in “piqued my interest.” Geez. What an idiot. Thanks!

  2. Don’t worry about it, Jacey. I’m a fan of curiosity in the piqued, peaked, or peeked forms.

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