Originally published on August 6, 2022 in Nippertown by Patrick White.
“Mr. Burns, a Post-Electric Play”, at the Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival, is a 2012 black comedy by Anne Washburn with music by Michael Friedman which finds us huddled together after cataclysmic events sharing stories of comfort, connection and survival centering around the Simpsons. It is a raucous celebration and a rather grim tale of end times.
It’s a play told over three acts and over 80 years in an impeccable production directed by Davis McCallum with a marvelous cast. When the play opens, a group of survivalists are sharing memories and specific lines from The Simpsons episode “Cape Feare” which is the animated series take on the remake of the movie with Sideshow Bob in the Robert DeNiro part. They are telling stories under the stars to hold onto their humanity and sanity. Luis Quintero is especially good in recreating his memories of this episode.
They are soon interrupted by a man (Sean McNall) who enters from the hill visible outside HVSF’s tent. He has made his way across the Eastern Seaboard and brings news of the waste he has seen. It is not just post-electric but post-apocalyptic. The grid has failed, and nuclear plants have melted down. All assembled are soon calling a roll of friends they are searching for which has been accepted as a normal, accepted activity. It put me in mind of the questions we’ve encountered over the last three years, who have you lost to the disease?
The second act, set seven years later, finds a small artisan community creating Simpsons episodes and commercials. It’s a vibrant, buzzing community theater scene with life and death stakes. They buy lines from patrons and jockey to present the best episodes against rival groups. Merritt Janson is the task mastering director in this scene and it is abundantly clear that Ms. Washburn knows her way around a rehearsal room.
This scene has great invention as we see the hard scrabble troupe improvise stage effects and stage business, a yellow bathing cap for Homer’s bald head. We also get a debate on the nature and uses of entertainment There’s also an extended dance sequence to a mash up of pop hits (“La Vida Loca,” “Toxic,” Gaga) called Chart Hits choreographed by Kimiye Corwin. The music is by Michael Friedman who received an Obie in 2007 for sustained excellence. He died of complications related to HIV/AIDS in 2017. This dance break would be worth the price of admission alone if not for the sensory overload of Act III.
Act III takes us 75 years into the future and the small fledgling band of artists fighting for survival have added a choir, The Shades of Springfield, production values and they are producing an opera on The Simpsons. There’s a bamboo stage built during intermission and benches added to the playing area moving the audience and reconfiguring the space completely, especially for those sitting stage side. The costume design by Kathleen Doyle takes a turn for the rubbaged fabulous lifting your spirits along with the left field choral arrangements, music direction by Saul Nache. The grand production goes way over the top and pursues its natural inclinations to a mano a mano battle between Mr. Burns (Zachary Fine, deliciously unhinged) and Bart (The unlikely heroic Britney Simpson). The audience is enlisted to shout and stomp their feet to keep the forces of good alive and what do you know? We were a braying mob for Bart Thursday night.
“Mr. Burns, a Post-Electric Play” will startle and inspire appreciation for the beauty and usefulness of our pop culture when it is not scaring the daylights out of you.
Through 9/17 @ Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival