Cultural touchstones come and go with the whims of time and taste, but The Simpsons is eternal. Now in its 27th season, The Simpsons is one of few ongoing media franchises to survive the pre-Internet, pre-mobile phone dark ages of the ‘90s. In its animated arrested development and syndicated perpetuity, it offers quotable commiseration to two successive generations—X and Millennial—and provides a comedic language entirely its own. Its 579 episodes (and counting) are both roadmap and archive of American pop culture.
So of course the survivors of a nuclear apocalypse would turn to the longest-running television show in history when scrounging for scraps of their decimated humanity. They would huddle around a campfire, fragile and paranoid, sharing Simpsons recollections with fellow leftovers, collectively piecing together a half-remembered Homerism or Itchy & Scratchy gag, clinging to dimming memories of their former selves, stumbling through the darkness toward whoever and whatever comes next.
Thus begins Mr. Burns, a post-electric play, now showing at ACT Theatre, with bedraggled survivors of a vague disaster recounting the “Cape Feare” episode of The Simpsons. (The classic, fifth-season episode riffs on the original 1962 film Cape Fear and Martin Scorsese’s then-au courant 1991 remake.) And it’s what comes next, as envisioned by playwright Anne Washburn and director John Langs, that makes the play so compelling.
This opening scene takes place shortly enough after the end of the world that we immediately recognize these displaced souls clinging to each other for safety and comfort—they could be us. Matt (played by Erik Gratton) is the alpha Simpsonite, leading the recitation of “Cape Feare” with a spot-on Homer impersonation, his campfire compatriots Jenny (Anne Allgood), Sam (Andrew Lee Creech) and Maria (Christine Marie Brown) playfully chiming in. A stranger named Gibson (Adam Standley) enters their encampment and interrupts the recitation with a moment of pathos as he trades names of known survivors with the others; Washburn’s world-building here is deft and subtle. Gibson provides a line from Sideshow Bob that Matt couldn’t remember—“I’ll say away alright. I’ll stay away… forever!”—proving himself a Simpsons journeyman in his own right and willing new member of this desperate band.
Cut to scene two, announced with the words SEVEN YEARS LATER projected above the stage in Simpsons-style font. The band is still together, now in the mode of the traveling players in Hamlet, preparing to take their version of “Cape Feare” on the road as a no-budget theater piece. They rehearse with exacting determination because in their post-electric world, this sort of referential spectacle is the only available form of entertainment and it matters greatly that they get it right. Humanity still hopes to connect to its golden past, so the players are willing to pay “line brokers” for bits of dialog they’ve forgotten. The cast describes their tour along a regional circuit, performing their play, seeking legendary stashes of Diet Coke. Hardcore Simpsons fans will recognize countless Easter eggs hidden in the dialog and stage direction. Equally rewarding is Washburn’s insinuation that our obsession with pop culture is so ingrained that it’ll live beyond the ubiquity provided by fossil fuels and wi-fi and social media. When there’s nothing left to create, we’ll recreate what came before.
After intermission—with TVs strewn around the ACT lobby showing old, distorted episodes of The Simpsons—act three goes 75 more years into the future and beyond any resemblance to contemporary society. The visual cues are now wholly symbolic, the storytelling entirely archetypal. The stage is framed by an internal proscenium, like church windows filled with dead lightbulbs instead of stained glass, and the actors wear grotesque, cartoonish masks of Simpsons characters as they parade through a weird musical number that loosely reenacts “Cape Feare”. It’s a religious rite of sorts, the original episode distorted by time and interpretation like a game of Telephone into a tribal-punk passion play telling the story of humanity’s descent, destruction and redemption. Now the audience is involved as congregation, the performance part Temple of Doom blood ritual, part grotesque Mad Max war rally, part stylized mythmaking as seen in sci-fi landmarks like Logan’s Run and Planet of the Apes (which was of course spoofed by The Simpsons in the season 7 episode “A Fish Called Selma”). Throughout this longest act, the pacing is swift, the action exaggerated into operatic cartoonery. The group—who must comprise new members, as the rest have surely died in the intervening 75 years—reenacts “Cape Feare”’s climactic confrontation between Bart and Sideshow Bob, here morphed to Mr. Burns, the show’s ultimate antagonist and a symbol of death in a world ruined by nuclear disaster. Without any regard for accuracy, the performers eat up the scenery, especially Standley’s wigged and tattooed Mr. Burns. It’s a dizzying sequence as stimulating as it is satisfying.
Mr. Burns stirs myriad ideas about the cultural ephemera that adds up to our human legacy. But its headiest implication is that The Simpsons and, say, the Bible are the same: Given sufficient reverence and a vast enough moral void, any text can be made religious. Fans of the show have found holy wisdom on Sunday nights at 8 p.m. for 27 years. Mr. Burns brings that wisdom into the theatre, broadening its reach and deepening its implications.
Mr. Burns, a post-electric play continues at ACT through Nov. 15.
Photo by Chris Bennion