A word of warning: If you imagine that Cockroach Theatre’s Mr. Burns: A Post-Electric Play will be a whimsical and witty whirl through the world of The Simpsons … it’s not. It’s more of a post-apocalyptic drama with a side of black humor.
The play’s three acts are set “in the near future,” seven years later and 75 years later. An opening montage of apocalyptic events, intercut with the sinister, grinning visage of Mr. Burns alludes to a series of nuclear disasters and massive casualties. Then we open on a small group of survivors trying to entertain themselves by recounting The Simpsons’ “Cape Feare” episode. As they squabble over the exact dialogue, it’s like any bunch of friends hanging out—interrupting, repeating, laughing—except they’re huddled around a firepit and everyone is dirty and armed.
When another survivor wanders in, he sets off a frenzy of gun-waving and patting-down, followed by everyone reciting lists of people they hope he might have seen or heard of, apparently a ritual in this not-so-brave new world. One woman launches into an account of a friend-of-a-friend trying to prevent a nuclear plant from melting down, in much the same revise/repeat manner as the attempts to reconstruct the adventures of Bart and Sideshow Bob.
In the second act, the same group has become a traveling troupe that performs episodes of The Simpsons, complete with commercials. But there’s still no electricity, and everyone still has guns: Between competing performance groups and the fact that the recollection of “lines” from TV shows has become a form of currency, a sitcom can be a dangerous place.
The final act, where Flanders, Wiggum and Nelson join the crew and everyone dons beautifully crafted character masks, is the most violent and harrowing. The framework of “Cape Feare” is amped up to opera and twisted into a metaphorical tale of the world’s near-total destruction, with Mr. Burns becoming a symbol of the apocalypse and Bart standing in for the resiliency of the human spirit. However, without any of the context or human presence of the previous acts, the third part is less engaging, if more impressive.
Parts of the play go on too long or don’t quite add up—I’m still trying to figure out what was the point of that 10-minute hip-hop/pop dance routine in the middle of Act 2. And that wasn’t the only part where I found myself mentally willing the actors to move along. Still, the concept of Mr. Burns: A Post-Electric Play is brilliant: How shared stories tie us together, but also how they change as memory fades and experience influences and how yesterday’s pop culture can mutate into tomorrow’s high art. Just don’t go expecting a lot of doughnuts and “d’oh.”
Mr. Burns: A Post-Electric Play
Thurs-Sun through May 10 at the Art Square Theatre, 1025 S. First St., Suite 110, $10-$20, 702-818-3422, CockroachTheatre.com.