Recently, I went to see Mr. Burns, a post-electric play, and I LOVED it. Word of warning, this is a dark play about a post-Apocalyptic America. The play has three acts: the first takes place right after the destruction, the second, seven years later, and the third seventy five years later. What I love about this play is that it grapples with a crucial question: how do we deal with ultimate uncertainty, and confronting the fact that we know and control comparatively little in this world? When the play starts the characters are discussing all of the rumors they have heard. In keeping with the theme of uncertainty, it isn’t clear what exactly happened, except that there are few survivors, there were massive fires, and the loss of electricity led to Chernobyl and Fukushima scale disasters in the country. It is frightening. As one of the characters says: how does nuclear power even work? How far does the radiation go? The news media is gone, and all families have been torn apart.
To keep themselves sane and to keep dangerous and unhelpful speculations at bay, the characters try to reconstruct the plot of a Simpson’s episode. And, note, the Simpson’s are a family, something that these characters have lost in their own lives. In the first act there is some nascent play acting as the characters remember their favorite parts of the episode. Also, during the first and second acts, there are sudden interruptions of threats that can quickly escalate to violence, re-emphasizing the uncertainty of this new world.
The second act is an in-between stage, where the characters (and other play groups that we never see) are acting in front of an old burned out TV, and re-creating commercials. During this act they also argue over the nature of art, whether it is merely entertainment, or if art can accomplish far more than that.
The third act is my absolute favorite. Relying on pre-Apocalyptic forms of entertainment has ended. The TV and commercials are gone: this is theatre, with curtains, lights, costumes, ceremony, and gorgeous, haunting singing (seriously, I would purchase a recording of the music in this play). For instance, I particularly love the actors moving bolts of blue fabric to simulate water. Here, the play gets rich and multivalent for it taps into the roots of performance in a Jungian way. Mr. Burns (who, note, owned a nuclear power plant) and Sideshow Bob have merged as the classic villain, intent on killing Bart Simpson and his family. Furthermore, the profile of Mr. Burns’s mask is the same curved beak as a Carnival of Venice mask (worn before Lent, with the promise of Easter to come), which, in turn, is based on the Plague Doctor’s masks of old (appropriate for a character representing death and destruction). And now Bart Simpson, too, is not only Bart Simpson, but all scrappy, rebellious young heroes. The duel between Mr. Burns and Bart reminded me powerfully of the duel between Captain Hook and Peter Pan, or any other number of heroes and villains (and here a shout out to Scott Van Wye who plays a splendid Mr. Burns, and breaks out his Gilbert and Sullivan earlier in the play).
Lastly, I like that the play does not end on a happy note, but continues to honestly acknowledge grief, uncertainty, and struggle in the face of overwhelming circumstances. And the characters do this through theatre, through art. To paraphrase what they say in the play: ‘family can be destroyed, but love, even as a memory, cannot be destroyed.’ Like crocus in winter, a few signs of life and hope show through: a character with a pregnant belly, the Carnival silhouette that prefigures Easter, and dazzling, dazzling light, right behind the curtain.