Review: In Mr. Burns, Imagining the Future Through the Lens of The Simpsons
Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival presents a rare NYC revival of Anne Washburn's post-apocalyptic look at America's single-greatest cultural export.
After the apocalypse, what will survive? Sports? The great works of literature? Or Bart Simpson? In Anne Washburn's 10-year-old but still extraordinarily timely Mr. Burns, A Post-Electric Play, the answer is firmly the latter.
Set in the aftermath of an apparent nuclear disaster, Washburn's play — receiving a highly enjoyable, occasionally thrilling environmental production via Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival in Garrison, New York — considers The Simpsons as America's single-greatest cultural export. The first act finds a group of survivors passing the time by recounting the eminently quotable season five episode "Cape Feare," where the Simpson family is forced into the Witness Relocation Program after a newly paroled Sideshow Bob vows his revenge on Bart.
In the second act, set seven years later, this campfire storytelling has morphed into live performance as troupes of ritualistic Simpsons reenactors spring up across the country, each with their own assortment of episodes. Quotes have become their own form of currency and the threat of violence looms large as rival companies attempt to steal each other's scripts.
Act three, 75 years in the future, is a performance of a new American creation myth, an opera loosely modeled on "Cape Feare" that replaces the villainous Sideshow Bob with the man responsible for the disaster that changed the world: Nuclear Power Plant owner C. Montgomery Burns. During a storm on the open sea, Bart must vanquish the evil Mr. Burns to reclaim his future after all is lost.
Davis McCallum's outdoor staging (in the company's giant tent) gives Washburn's text an even eerier atmosphere than it already has, especially in the first act as we watch sunset turn to dusk and dusk become pitch-black night. He guides his ensemble cast (many of whom also appear in the extremely opposite repertory production, Romeo and Juliet) to thoughtful performances that gradually deepen over the course of two-and-a-half hours.
McCallum doesn't solve all of it, however; the three-quarter round playing space (with a set by Peiyi Wang) isn't conducive to a work that was written for a traditional setup, and the final act really suffers from not giving enough attention to sight lines. That aspect is a real shame, since Act 3 is the most bonkers and terrifying part of the show, with Michael Friedman's discordant score coming to life in the hands of a game company led by Britney Simpson as the heroic Bart and the particularly amazing Zachary Fine as the maniacal and horned Mr. Burns. It also featured, the night I attended, a torrential rainstorm. The real-life elemental effects by Nature were as on point as Kathleen Doyle's resourceful costumes, which evoke iconic Simpsons images on the zero-dollar budget of the characters.
For Simpsons fans, Mr. Burns is not going to be the play you want it to be. This is the problem I had when I saw it at Playwrights Horizons: I didn't know Washburn was only using The Simpsons as the seed of the idea to explore the destruction and rebuilding of society. "Do you have any idea what's going on?" the semi-downtrodden dad behind us in the "You Don't Win Friends With Salad" T-shirt asked his two tween sons. "No," they replied in unison.
You don't win friends with salad, alright, and for outsiders, this play really is salad — it's grim and complex and makes you think about the difficult truths nobody wants to admit to. For the rest of us, the few who go in knowing what to expect, Mr. Burns is a chilling look at a future that was distant enough 10 years ago to be slightly removed, but amid the Covid pandemic, the looming threat of climate change, political discord, and whatever else seems to be in the news today, is all too real. What would Bart say to that? "Ay, caramba!"