How “Mr. Burns: A Post-Electric Play” Made the Stage

January 26, 2018

The Simpsons have come to campus. Mask and Bauble Dramatic Society and Nomadic Theater collaborated to bring Anne Washburn’s Mr. Burns: A Post-Electric Play to Poulton Hall. Adapted from The Simpsons episode “Cape Feare,” Mr. Burns is a colorful meta-narrative infused with an amalgam of dark humor, nostalgia, music, drama, tension, and action. More importantly, it suggests deeper questions about the purpose of entertainment, the problematic status of technology, and our ability to persevere through adversity.

Set in post-apocalyptic America, the show follows a dynamic group of survivors who struggle to find hope in the midst of fear, anxiety, and loss. The world has disintegrated into a meaningless void, conquered by man-made technology and nuclear power. Divided into three parts with an intermission after the second act, the show takes the audience through time from “the very near future” to “every story [ending] on a dark and raging river.”

The first act develops slowly with dialogue and storytelling. The group tries to recount from memory “Cape Feare,” in which Bart Simpson receives a death threat from vengeful criminal Sideshow Bob. In the second act, the group attempts the art of imitation and their own unique characterization of The Simpsons. Their reminiscences become a staged reality as they begin performing as a theater troupe, but a conflict divides the group, torn between producing meaningless entertainment or a significant message. In the third and final act, the tensions culminate in a climactic, postmodern musical number, challenging the boundaries of creativity and illuminating the impact of love.

Mr. Burns debuted in May 2012 in Washington before moving to New York City. The script captivated director Johnny Monday (COL ’18), who began trying to bring the show to Georgetown last March. “I chose this play for a variety of reasons. I literally found it through a friend as we were looking for shows to apply to direct with. I think it resonates with a modern audience because nothing feels new anymore, so why not do a play about the world ending mixed with The Simpsons?”

The choice aligned with Monday’s personal taste as well: “I have loved The Simpsons since I was very young. It is a show that captures a moment and an attitude of pure irony, which is perfectly juxtaposed in a show like this where the stakes of these characters’ lives are anything but ironic. They must approach life with the utmost sincerity and anxiety.”

Monday worked with producer Cameron Bell (COL ’19), stage manager Amelia Walsh (SFS ’20), and technical director Leyland Reilly (SFS ’20) to assemble a team of designers and other production staff members in May 2017. Casting and rehearsals began in October. But even a nearly year-long production came down to the wire. “We actually came back about five days early from winter break to do the bulk of set building and rehearsal work,” Bell said. “It has really been a long haul with lots going on from start to finish.”

For Bell, the collaboration between M&B and Nomadic was both the most challenging and the most fun part of the production. “Juggling two clubs made for some logistical challenges as one would expect, but like I said, it was an absolute joy to watch my friends from both clubs bring their immense talents together to make this happen.”

Appropriately, the cast creates an electric atmosphere in the theater with their characters. Michael Riga (COL ’21) feels a personal connection to his character, Matt. “We have a lot in common with one another. We both love to tell stories, for example. Most of my dialogue in Act I is recounting an episode of The Simpsons which feels just like something I’d do in real life.” Meanwhile, Riga’s other part, Scratchy, has a very different persona: a demonic cartoon cat and henchman for Mr. Burns.

Riga’s partners—Jenny the human and Itchy the mouse—are both portrayed by Cristin Crowley (MSB ’20). For Crowley, it was challenging “to imagine a life in which the world has ended, and essentially everyone you ever knew and loved had died.”

She added, “As an actress, I love performing, whereas Jenny is more than happy to stay more offstage to write the scripts and direct the scenes their acting troupe performs.”

Riga credits his real life friendship with Crowley for their chemistry on stage. “Cristin and I had worked together on Exit, Pursued by a Bear earlier this year so when we read together as Matt and Jenny at callbacks, it felt super natural and comfortable with barely any practice,” Riga said.

Technical elements of the show are critical in fleshing out the post-apocalyptic world and establishing the show’s ominous yet playful tone. Jemma Fagler (COL ’18) focused on crafting three distinct sets and refining the stage to correspond with each setting. The campfire in Act I is a bare-bones scene around which the ghostly survivors could gather and humorously recount a specific episode from The Simpsons, contrasting sharply with the grounded reality of a dystopian world. With a mix of humor and tragedy, the air is mostly bleak and grim. In Act II, the set transforms into a bright studio apartment as furniture shuffles behind the curtains, and the show elevates its conception of entertainment and comic relief. Thanks to the stage’s deep theater, a houseboat remains hidden behind the walls until it is revealed in Act III for a dramatic showdown between Bart and Sideshow Bob. This final sequence is the most like a cartoon and even avant-garde, as fantastical elements are combined with song.

In addition to the set design, costumes and music highlight the lively aspects of the performance. The caricatures of the Simpsons would not be complete without the yellow masks that outline their heads and clothing that resembles the trademark color of their attire, like Marge’s turquoise green dress and iconic tall tree of blue hair. Signs with red paint for each act are eerily familiar to Sideshow Bob’s striking way of writing with the blood of his finger. Nearly identical to the episode’s soundtrack, the play’s music also contributes to the creepy air as student conductor James Khoury (COL ’20) assembled a small band of five musicians to play live for each show. The cast also amplifies the musical numbers with song and dance during commercial breaks and the dramatic finale. With varying settings and characters, music is the unifying force that resonates with a catchy theme.

When it comes to viewing a show, personal taste and genres swing the pendulum of the audience’s interest. “I think young people can really resonate with this production,” Monday said. “Creatives and those that are worried about their future. Really anybody that feels a pressure from an outside world that seems doomed for destruction.”

“[This show is for] anyone who is curious about pop culture and its collective interpretation and memory, the apocalypse, nuclear disasters, The Simpsons, or musicals,” Bell added. “We like to think we’re covering a wide range.”

Fantasy is often dismissed as trivial, but this co-production champions love and creativity in a mundane, hateful world. Sometimes it requires cognitive estrangement, distorting the normal and familiar to help us see and understand a different truth and reality. Etched with humor and covered with yellow masks, the faces of Mr. Burns remind us that we have to leave reality and enter the unimaginable to open ourselves up to a myriad of possibilities. It is this magical, cosmic element of imagination that helps us evaluate our perception and reach a higher understanding of the world and ourselves.

“Art is something that will always survive,” Crowley said. “No matter what, society will always find a way to entertain themselves.”

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