‘The Simpsons’ live on in post-apocalyptic ‘Mr. Burns’
“The Simpsons” is in its 30th season on television (longer if counting its original incarnation on “The Tracey Ullman Show”).
More than a generation has no memory of a world in which the animated series didn’t exist. And if “Mr. Burns, a Post-Electric Play” is right, those memories will survive the apocalypse.
Anne Washburn’s play, which opens Friday for a two-weekend run at Kent State University at Trumbull Theatre, imagines how those memories could evolve after society collapses. Director Eric Kildow saw the play when Cleveland Public Theatre staged it in 2016.
“When I saw it, it was such a gut punch,” Kildow said. “By the end of it, it was such an affecting performance, it had given my wife a minor anxiety attack. If a script hits that hard, that’s something we need to look at doing.”
The first act starts post-apocalypse and focuses on a group of survivors sitting around a fire and entertaining themselves with stories. The conversation turns to “The Simpsons,” specifically the fifth-season episode “Cape Feare,” a spoof of the 1962 film “Cape Fear” and its 1991 remake, with Sideshow Bob terrorizing Bart Simpson and his family after being paroled from Springfield State Prison.
The second act takes place seven years later, with those campfire characters forming a theater troupe and entertaining other survivors with their production of “Cape Feare,” complete with commercials and other pop culture references.
The final act takes place 75 years later where, like a game of telephone, the original details of the story have evolved into a full-scale operatic production.
“It morphs into cinematic theater with mythological tropes,” Kildow said. “It moves from a story about Bart Simpson, unruly kid, to a young man moving up in the world. It’s about the turning of something all too familiar into something alien. That was what really hit me when I was watching it. And through the play you see that transformation happen.”
Kildow and the cast — Austin Brown, Emmy Cohen, JoJo Garcia, Jacob Glosser, Yazz’Meonia Haynes, Rylie Hornung, Tamron Lewis and Justin Pickett — had to figure out how to depict that evolution on stage.
By the third act, the villain of the story has changed from Sideshow Bob to Mr. Burns. Kildow wanted the portrayal to incorporate elements of both, but it also draws on other famous villains like The Joker. Homer Simpson starts out as a more run-of-the-mill impression, Kildow said, before evolving into a more stereotypical father figure that draws from other sources.
“We started by steering into the skid — ‘OK, let’s mimic The Simpsons, then peter it down or twist it in a way as we advance through time,”’ Kildow said
Then there is the music. The third act is mostly sung and performed with the kinds of instruments that might be available post-apocalypse.
“It’s not a musical per se, but it has music,” Kildow said. “It’s very interesting and very dissonant.”
Viewing the present through the prism of a post-apocalyptic future also influenced the actors’ movement in that third act.
“In talking to the choreographer, the discussion was, ‘Think about the stuff you do now. What would it look like 90 years from now passed down solely by oral tradition?'”