Dr. Strangelove. Atlas Shrugged. The War of the Worlds. 28 Days Later. The post-apocalyptic narrative is not one that’s new to us. In fact, we seem to be fascinated with the “what if”s that humanity might face when forced to start over from scratch.
In Anne Washburn’s new piece Mr. Burns, the playwright takes a lens to what life might look like weeks after a pandemic wipes out most of human civilization…and how the remaining folks choose to remember The Simpsons. The play opens with a group trying to recall exactly what happened on the episode “Cape Feare.” What starts out as a way of passing the time, the shellshocked survivors attempt to make sense of their new fate using the show as a means of connect with a pop-culture world now lost to them.
The play revisits the group seven years later to find that their connection and conversations have evolved into a theatre-troupe-retelling of said Simpsons episode, complete with attempts at commercial breaks. With no electricity and no recent entertainment product in the wake of the disaster, they are forced to recreate their own. Actors buy lines from passersby – attempting to reconstruct a pop culture phenomenon from the fading chambers of strangers’ memories.
In the final act, 77 years into the future – with the original generation of those that remember the show now gone – the play has transformed into an epic Greek-tragedy style opera, revering the Simpsons family as they try to escape an evil Mr. Burns and his nuclear powers.
The play’s postulation on what would happen to our culture if forced to move from a strictly electronic and digital one back to one of oral history is an absolutely fascinating one. After all, how many phone numbers do we have committed to memory? Why memorize the names and dates of important cultural moments when they are just a simple Google or Wikipedia search away? Mr. Burns asks us to consider our role in a technological world and how that affects our process storymaking.
Makes you wonder when a Dadaist deconstruction of Toddlers and Tiaras will hit the stage. But until then, Playwrights Horizons has a show to pique the interest of anyone the least bit concerned about the human condition.