Sunday, September 15, 2013

Thoughts on Theatre: Mr. Burns, a post-electric play

Directed by Steve Cosson. Written by Anne Washburn. Music by Michael Friedman. At Playwrights Horizons at 416 West 42nd Street, New York. For tickets and more information, visit Reviewed September 5, 2013 (preview performance).

As long as there have been people, there have been stories, and stories retold time and time again are retold in different ways by different people. Stories are modified in different ways for different reasons when they are retold; be it a fairy tale that had its more violent elements removed and then was later made into a Disney musical, or a simple anecdote about a funny thing that happened that may not exactly be remembered the way it originally happened - or even the way it was last told. For the thing that seems to affect stories and the way they are told most is not just where and when they are being told, but by who. The human memory is a faulty and often incorrect beast, and if the game of "telephone" has taught us anything, stories told to others aloud often end up mangled in the retelling purple monkey dishwasher. (I once had a friend retell the events of an episode of The Simpsons that sounded absolutely foreign to me until I realized he was actually remembering an episode of Dexter's Laboratory.)

But what are the stories of our times that will endure for future civilizations to tell, retell, and often mistell? What is our modern-day equivalent of the Bible or Shakespeare? For better or for worse, what has permeated the mindset of the modern American the most due to its omnipresence and inescapability is what is generally considered one of our relatively lower forms of culture, the television sitcom - perhaps most inescabably of all, The Simpsons. As author Chris Turner put it in his 2005 discussion of how The Simpsons affected modern pop culture and vice versa, Planet Simpson, "If there is a common cultural currency, it's got Homer Simpson's picture on it." Most likely, the longest-running sitcom in television history has had more written about it than any other series in history, from scholarly essays to an entire Internet's worth of websites devoted to it. (Remember the days before broadband and YouTube when Simpsons .wavs were the highest-quality Internet entertainment available?) Mr. Burns, a post-electric play, which opens tonight for a limited Off-Broadway run, combines and definitely proves the longevity of both the storytelling process (imperfect as it may be) and The Simpsons as a modern cultural touchstone - and brings up a number of interesting talking points on the ties that bind humankind for better or worse in the process.

The play opens on a group of people, seated around a campfire, some with guns at the ready to fire at some unseen threat. A man named Matt (Matthew Maher - all of the characters are named after the actors who play them) passes the time by regaling the group with the story of a Simpsons episode as best as he can remember it. To be specific, "Cape Feare", the now-classic episode (directed by Rich Moore long before Wreck-It Ralph) in which the family joins the Witness Protection Program after recurring villain Sideshow Bob is released from prison and makes clear his desire to murder Bart as revenge for his capture in two previous episodes. Not surprisingly, the retelling is rife with forgotten lines, skipping back and forth in the actual series of events, and a lot of derailments into discussions of other pop culture targets being satirized in the original episode - including, of course, Cape Fear (both the original and the remake). Eventually, another man named Gibson (Gibson Frazier) wanders onto the campsite. After the group realize that Gibson is not a threat, the conversation turns to where the members of the group came from and who they left behind, which eventually reveals why the group is here and why they were ready to shoot at whoever came by: in this unspecified portion of the (presumably Northeastern given the geography mentioned) United States at this unspecified time (stated in the program simply as "Near. Soon."), an explosion at a nuclear power plant has caused a nationwide blackout, leaving those who survived the disasters that ensued to fend for themselves.

The second act takes place seven years afterward, as this group has become a repertory theater company who performs Simpsons episodes alongside "commercials" which are not so much trying to sell things as they are helping the audience to remember the simple luxuries they no longer have, such as houses, showers, and Diet Coke. The final act takes place 75 years after the second; the real history of the apocalypse has conflagrated with the fiction of The Simpsons. "Cape Feare" is no longer the story of the Simpson family moving to a houseboat to avoid the murderous Sideshow Bob but is now a comically melodramatic musical about the Simpson family, the only known survivors of the power plant explosion that destroyed Springfield, who set out on a houseboat to find a new life - unaware that the villainous Mr. Burns, who was mutated by the explosion, is still alive and has set out with his henchmen Itchy and Scratchy to murder the Simpson family for some unspecified reason.

In both the first and second acts, Maher does a fantastic job as at first the storyteller and later the actor portraying Homer. His imitations of the characters are amusing as his delivery - the way he describes various visual gags from the original show are just as funny as the genuine article. (The fact that he both resembles Homer and shares a first name both in reality and fiction with Simpsons creator Matt Groening is a pleasant coincidence.) However, I was surprised that what I loved most about Mr. Burns was not the Simpsons references but the small talk that helps flesh out this unusual universe. Playwright Anne Washburn did a wonderful job with the dialogue, which both sounded genuine and was in itself an interesting gateway to this dystopia, especially in the second act. A lot of the dialogue in the second act seemed as if it was self-satirizing the difficulties of putting a play together, as the repertory company discusses the unusual circumstances of their time such as having to deal with other similar traveling companies each of which has the exclusive rights to perform their own set of Simpsons episodes, punching up episodes they have the rights to they feel are weak with new dialogue and jokes, and taking suggestions from the audience for new lines which leads to even stranger circumstances like an audience member demanding compensation for a line about magic space crystals he didn't actually write and members of the company believing they were responsible for coming up with lines that were actually in the show to begin with.

One of the most interesting things about the show to me was how things referenced in each of the various acts kept popping up in the succeeding acts. A story of a person who was at the nuclear power plant during the actual explosion - a story which itself may not have actually happened - eventually becomes the prologue to the third act's play-within-a-play. In its own Chekhovian way, a joke the entire group racks their brains to remember the exact wording of becomes the witty rejoinder in the clichéd battle scene that serves as the climax to that very same play. And some much larger recurring themes weave their way through all three acts and add to the general idea of the transformation through retelling by faulty memories: The character for whom the play is named comes up in each act; in the first he is confused with Sideshow Bob, in the second Gibson suggests replacing Sideshow Bob with Mr. Burns because he prefers playing Mr. Burns and their company has very few Mr. Burns episodes in their reprotire, in the third, Mr. Burns has indeed supplanted Sideshow Bob as the villain of the story - whether by Gibson's doing, human memory again taking its toll on Bob, or a combination of the two is left to the imagination of the audience. (In a similar vein, the collective conciousness has given Troy McClure the characteristics of anchorman Kent Brockman; McClure's catchphrase "You may remember me" becomes the dying plea of a victim unable to escape the destruction who literally wants to be remembered instead of a D-list actor's constant attempt to remind viewers he once had a career.)

The other recurring theme of endurance and remembrance (or misremembrance) of disposable culture is pop music. The second act features an incredibly funny montage of pop songs mashed together as part of the reperatory company's nostalgic repertoire; the musical that comprises the third act quotes liberally from the pieces that have apparently seeped into the mindset of the near-future - The Simpsons theme song transforms into that of The Flintstones, the lyrics to Britney Spears's Toxic are taken literally as Mr. Burns describes his deadly touch resulting from his nuclear run-in. Appropriately given its importance in "Cape Feare" itself, Gilbert and Sullivan also plays a recurring role. (One of my favorite touches was that the music played before the show began were various covers of pop songs - many of which appeared in the show itself - done in styles or genres different from those in which they were actually recorded [BeyoncĂ© as country, Lady Gaga as a classical string number, Eye of the Tiger as a lounge act], which was an interesting example of the sort of cultural transformation, intentional or not, that is a theme of the play).

Mr. Burns is a play that, much like Professor Frink, both makes you laugh and makes you think. The themes brought up about human nature are interesting ones (at least they seem to be to me - I very well could just be using buzzwords like "omnipresence" and "Chekhovian" that dumb people use to sound important, but I hope I'm not). Something Matt says during the first act seems to sum up a theme of the play as a whole: "People are not competent." It was human incompetence that led to the nuclear apocalypse, and it was a different kind of human incompetence that causes The Simpsons to mutate into the only surviving record of what happened in said apocalypse. Much like The Simpsons itself, Mr. Burns is both pessimistic and optimistic, if that's somehow possible: even though it may take more than 22 minutes for us to do so, humankind will eventually find a solution to all its problems, even if it's not a perfect one, and succeed despite incompetence. "Pull a Homer", if you will.

The second act closes with an implication that indeed not all the problems are solved by the show's halfway point which might be jarring to some - a few people at the performance I attended actually laughed because of how out of left field it was. Also, the relatively goofier third act is entertaining in its own right but somewhat pales to the world-building moments of the first two, which seems to show the difficulty of making a realistic, down-to-earth play that's also completely off-the-wall and teeming with giant robots (Note: there are no giant robots in this play). Mr. Burns may not be perfect, but it's perfectly cromulent. Even with its few flaws, Mr. Burns is an incredibly fun, interesting, and thought-provoking play. I've been trying my hardest not to make any Simpsons references in this review (despite that, a ton of them still somehow snuck their way in. Damn TV, you've ruined my imagination!), but hopefully you'll forgive me making the most obvious one of all: Mr. Burns is exxxxcellent. I heartily endorse this event or product with a review of SCREW FLANDERS...I mean HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.