By Harmon Walsh
I think it’s fair to say I’m a fan of “The Simpsons“. At one point in the 90’s, before DVR’s, I had a collection of over 150 episodes of the show, spread out over 17 VHS tapes which I had taped myself from the five different time slots the show held when in the prime of it’s syndication boom. I can’t stress how much careful planning and time this took – particularly as the shows/tapes were all carefully catalogued and organized. So I think it’s also fair to say I was excited for Outside the March‘s production of Mr. Burns, a Post-Electric Play.
The first act sets the scene of a post-apocalyptic world – one with zero electricity. This world has all the usual signs of epic disaster: people afraid and untrusting of those they don’t know, people trying to locate their missing loved ones and, unusually in this case, people trying to remember the plot of a specific episode of “The Simpsons” (the classic Cape Feare episode). Unfortunately, slowly establishing this scene is all the first act consists of.
Act Two is set seven years later where the group we first met are one of several competing amateur theatre groups performing episodes of “The Simpsons” as best they can remember them. Scripts of episodes, and even just lines, have become a commodity and are sold and stolen. As we watch one of these groups rehearse with live commercials (yet, inexplicably none were for Simpson & Son’s Revitalizing Tonic), we again learn little of what’s going on in the world.
The third and final act is a full blown production of one of these performances 75 years after the apocalypse and it is full (Gulp ’n’ Blow)n! At this point the show becomes a musical (the script of “Cape Feare” has evolved), and the lighting, masks and puppetry work are beautifully dark and terrifying. The world seems to be that of a child’s nightmare (sans Space Coyote). The music and the inventiveness of lyrics/script for this third act are extremely clever and engaging. It’s just unfortunate that this starts two hours after curtain.
While the actors performed quite well this is not a script which allowed me to ever be invested in any of the characters (except for a few moments in Act Two when Damien Atkins’ character has a monologue about brain damage). It is also a script which doesn’t have much of a plot. I’m cool with putting in some time to establish the ground work to get to the good stuff (Act Three) but I don’t (nor should anyone) need two hours of it. The painfully slow navigation/discovery of the “Cape Feare” plot in Act One and much of the rehearsal in Act Two doesn’t need to be half as long as it is. And I love all things Simpsons! Sure there are some good references for a Simpsons aficionado, but where’s the story? Washburn’s play touches on some grand ideas (our current society’s values and how those are translated in truth and in fiction and how those will be understood years from now), but doesn’t develop them in any meaningful way. The script never manages to explore beyond it’s promising premise. And Mr Burns does have a great premise. As a civilization resets after an apocalyptic event, the one cultural carryover is “The Simpsons”, a pop-culture cartoon phenomenon that used to create bonds, forge new relationships, establish power and is even used for financial gain. But, regrettably, for the first 2 hours, it does little to expand on that premise.
In what is now quickly becoming expected from Outside The March, the production is very inventive. To properly portray a world with no electricity this production doesn’t use any electricity in the production. This is obvious in the first act which consists of little more than flashlights and live crickets (yep), but almost hard to even notice by the third act due to the imaginative use of blacklight paints, masks, puppets, wonderfully twisted costumes and even a megaphone (just one). Kudos to the entire design crew for this feat.
There is a moment in act two that really sums the whole play up for me. Two actors are rehearsing an episode and arguing over how it should be done when one says: “I just feel we have an opportunity to do something real here.” I couldn’t agree more and wish that the script capitalized on that opportunity.