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HIGHLANDS CURRENT: Pushing a Sitcom Past the Apocalypse

Originally published on August 12, 2022 in The Highlands Current by Joe Dizney.

Finding meaning in a post-Simpsons universe

Zeitgeisty, if that’s a word, would be one way to define Mr. Burns, A Post-Electric Play, in performance at the Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival through Sept. 17.

Written by Anne Washburn, with music by Michael Friedman, lyrics by Washburn and direction by Davis McCallum, Mr. Burns is the darkest of dark comedies and unlike anything that HVSF has staged in its 35 years.

Set in a post-nuclear future, it appropriates the nation’s longest-running TV series, The Simpsons, which debuted in 1989, two years after HSVF.

“I had this idea of pushing a sitcom past the apocalypse and seeing what would happen,” Washburn said in an interview that included McCallum, who is HVSF’s artistic director. “It took me a long time to work out which sitcom I wanted it to be.”

With the title Mr. Burns in mind — a reference to the nuclear power plant owner who is the Simpsons’ chief nemesis — the playwright assigned the actors in a New York City troupe, The Civilians, to piece together, from memory, a transcript of scenes from the series, improvising when their recollections were hazy.

Her play opens in a wooded clearing after a nuclear disaster has destroyed the power grid and much of the population. Survivors huddle around a campfire re-enacting as best they can the “Cape Feare” episode of The Simpsons — as much for comfort and connection as entertainment. When a stranger stumbles into the clearing, firearms are drawn, but an uneasy camaraderie is reached.

“I always sort of feel like it’s a 9/11 play,” Washburn said. “There was this ambient threat, and we’re still processing 9/11, the Iraq War…”

Act 2 is set seven years later. An obliquely McLuhanesque performance economy is apparently thriving; wandering troupes stage threadbare but heartfelt recreations of “Feare” and other episodes, competing for audience share. Diet Coke is the foundation of a barter system. A market for “authentic” line readings is cutthroat, but there is as much focus on set-piece “commercial” breaks.

“I feel like Act 2 is powered by what they don’t say and can’t talk about,” said Washburn. “In small ways, it’s where they’re starting to be able to talk about what’s happening now, in ways I don’t know to what degree they’re conscious of.”

“Seven years in the future, they still have one foot back in the lost world,” added McCallum. “Part of what they’re selling is a nostalgia for that world. The second act scared me when we started working on it, because I thought: ‘What precisely is the story that’s going on?’ In the ‘Chart Hits’ section, they dance as a denial of the many wolves at their door.”

“We look for the things that bind us together,” said Washburn.

In the third act, set another 75 years in the future, Sideshow Bob — the psychopathic
clown from the TV series featured in Act 2, has metastasized into the gleefully evil Mr. Burns, also out to dispatch Bart, and everyone else.

The performance becomes a spectacle, with costumes that are an exaggerated mashup of high and low culture.

McCallum recalled how costume designers would ask Terry O’Brien, the founding artistic director of HVSF, when he wanted to set each Shakespearean play, e.g., in the 19th century or the 1950s? “He would say, ‘I think it’s 1,500 years in the future, after the grid falls — that’s when we’re going to set it.’”

As a result, the costumes on those productions “ended up looking like something from the Middle Ages with a bizarre, futuristic twist” — an apt description of the Act 3 pageantry of Mr. Burns.

Although it’s difficult to provide a summary of the plot without spoilers, there’s a contentious interchange in the second act between a couple of the players that reflects its character:

Maria: “Are we just entertaining them? We have an opportunity here to provide … meaning.”

Quincy: “Meaning is everywhere. We get meaning for free, whether we like it or not. Meaningless entertainment, on the other hand, is actually really hard.”

The Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival is located at 2015 Route 9 in Garrison. Tickets for Mr. Burns, which resumes on Aug. 26, are $10 to $95 each at hvshakespeare.org.