I had wanted to see Anne Washburn's Mr. Burns: A Post-Electric Play since I read the initial ecstatic reviews surrounding its New York premiere two years ago. So I was delighted to learn that while here in Toronto on a short visit to see family I could take in Outside the March's production (in partnership with Starvox Entertainment and Crow's Theatre) of the play at the former Aztec movie theatre on Gerrard Street East.
Washburn's play takes its title from the character of Homer Simpson's boss on that ubiquitous pop culture televisual referent, The Simpsons. In the first act of the play survivors of a nuclear disaster on the east coast of the United States distract themselves from their new post-apocalyptic reality by enacting old episodes of Matt Groening's cartoon, and in particular the iconic 1993 episode that spoofed the Martin Scorsese remake of the original 1962 version of the thriller Cape Fear, starring Robert Mitchum as the violent ex-con seeking revenge on the family of the lawyer (played by Gregory Peck) whom he blames for putting him behind bars. Already one sees the layers of citationality that Washburn suggests are embedded in our touchstone stories--be they Homeric invocations of the muses or, as with our traumatized posse in Washburn's play, repeated utterances of the Simpson paterfamilias' signature "D'oh!" And if, according to many theorists, electronic and digital media at once remediate and hypermediate older oral traditions in our post-print, post-literate era (think of the tweet as a version of the town crier or, even better, the retweet as a game of telephone), then it makes sense that when the power grid collapses we will revert, almost reflexively, to more embodied and repertory acts of myth-making and storytelling--such as spinning favourite tales around a campfire.
It is in just such a state that we find Matt (Colin Doyle) at the start of Mr. Burns' first act, manically recounting scenes from the aforementioned "Cape Feare" episode of The Simpsons for the benefit of Maria (Katherine Cullen), Jenny (Tracy Michailidis), and Sam (Sebastien Heins), each of whom displays varying degrees of nostalgia for the episode and the show as a whole, but who are nevertheless actively invested in the shared ritual of reenacting and remembering a cultural artifact from a past that no longer exists. When Gibson (an excellent Damien Atkins) accidentally stumbles upon their encampment we discover that this is all that binds these individuals together--that and the fact that they have survived the catastrophic disaster that has preceded the action of the play (and remember, in this regard, that in The Simpsons Mr. Burns is the owner of the Springfield Nuclear Power Plant and himself briefly flirted with a career in bioterrorism). For once the group has determined that Gibson is not a threat to their safety they immediately go through another ritual, albeit one that emphasizes the otherwise random and chance nature of their connection to each other: each member of the camp takes out a book and asks Gibson if he recognizes or may have previously encountered any of ten names read out (presumably of missing family members or friends). He does not. And then it is his turn to read out his list, which he prefaces by saying that he thought the protocol for this bizarre hybrid of stranger-greeting and genealogical remembering was now to read out only eight names. It's in these tiny details that Washburn is able to telegraph with extreme economy and subtlety how little time, in this new world, there is for normal acts of grieving, and also how new social practices and representational acts, built on the ashes of old ones, become institutionalized and circulate: through repetition. How else to explain the symbolic capital of a show like The Simpsons, even to someone like me, who rarely watched it? Or, likewise to Gibson, who is able to supply Matt the line from the "Cape Feare" episode he couldn't remember because, even though Gibson never watched the show, his missing girlfriend was a huge fan, and would routinely recite favourite lines around the house.
Act 2 of Washburn's play opens seven years later. Our rag-tag team of survivors has banded together (quite literally) to form a start-up television station, performing old episodes from The Simpsons (or what they remember of them), as well as the commercials that used to interrupt them. In this post-Netflix, post-PVRing, post-binge watching society, entertainment is still a commodity, but in ways that combine the early days of live television broadcast and an even older barter economy. Harried producer Colleen (Amy Keating) is rushing to lock down a commercial featuring Quincy (Rielle Braid, another standout in a stellar cast) and Gibson as a couple trying to unwind after work. But the group also needs to finish rehearsing two other full episodes of The Simpsons before their competitors do so. The added twist here is that cultural memory has now become the new currency, as the product our group is selling is dependent on scripts cobbled together from remembered lines from old Simpsons episodes that Jenny buys from other survivors on the open market of nostalgia. Trouble is that Jenny is pretty sure some of what she's buying isn't authentic, that desperate folks are now just making things up in order to make whatever trade they need to in order to get by. But, as Gibson's character reveals in a wrenching meltdown when he can't remember having been at the meeting where the group agreed to produce a much-disputed episode, when one's memory is not just subject to the normal ravages of time, but also potentially accelerated deterioration due to radioactive contamination, the stakes of what is ersatz and what is authentic suddenly become all the more fraught.
Finally, in Act 3, Washburn lets loose her amazingly fertile and intelligent imagination in a bravura musical sequence set 75 years in the future. In this new society, the fictional world of The Simpsons has fully fused with the lived reality of the descendents of the survivors from the first two acts. In this hybrid mythology Bart (Braid again), Lisa (Keating), Homer (Doyle) and Marge (Cullen) become the intrepid heroes who triumph against the evil Mr. Burns (Ishai Buchbinder) and his henchmen Itchy (Atkins) and Scratchy (Heins), giving rise to an origin story that is enacted in song and dance and that, appropriately for a playwright who is additionally concerned with exploring in highly metatheatrical ways the place of live performance in our thoroughly mediatized world, takes us back to the origins of western theatre (cue the masks and prosthetic extensions and Greek chorus).
Outside the March's co-directors, Simon Bloom and Mitchell Cushman, have assembled an incredibly talented (if overwhelmingly white) cast and crew. And while the production is staged largely proscenium style, they do tap into the company's previous site-specific and immersive aesthetic in making creative use of the Aztec Theatre's dilapidated charms. Most impressive, the entire two hour and forty-five minute performance is powered without traditional electricity. Flashlights and glowstick devices of various sorts are used in many scenes, but there are also a lot of illuminated lightbulbs throughout. The energy for these, it is revealed at the very end of the show, comes from a generator attached to a bicycle that cast member Buchbinder, who fittingly plays Mr. Burns, has presumably been pedalling throughout the production. Just one magic trick among many that makes this show worth the trip to Riverdale.