Mr. Burns, a Post-Electric Play speaks to the very nature of storytelling, its ability to evolve and change as society does. It’s like one long drawn out game of telephone- one in which the pop culture icons The Simpson’s star. The production put on by the University of Michigan’s Department of Theatre & Drama this past weekend was inventive and entertaining, featuring a cast that was diversely talented and dynamic.
Visually the show was vivid and full of beautiful surprises. The set was at turns grungy and battered, dazzling illuminated, and later terrifyingly imposing. Moving through three distinct locations, one for each act, each was unique and reflected the changing times after the end of the world. And the costumes tied the scenery together. At first, they were everyday clothes that you and I would wear, but battered and obviously routinely slept in. Then the first leap 7 years after the world-ending-electricity-lost event they are still familiar but as the actors attempt to re-enact a live performance version of The Simpsons the costumes become slightly off. They have obviously been scavenged and the actors are making do with what they can find. The last leap puts us 75+ years after that ominous event. Actors are wearing caution tape and paint as dresses. Pencils function as Bart’s hair, as his mother, sister, and father wear pieces of plastic bottles and cut up solo cups. When Lisa walked out in a garbage bag of a dress covered in solo cups, I almost lost it- it was that ridiculously funny!
What also got me was when in the second act (7 years out) the actors are all suddenly singing. I was very unaware there would be singing at all in this play but we took a short break, from the serious possibility that they were all dying from radiation, to listen to a well executed mash-up of hit songs. This act really allowed the actors to stretch themselves into their characters and flesh-out the relationships we’d begun to see in the first act. The interaction between actors during this first act was key to setting up the rest of the show, though it was by far the most serious- it took place shortly after the worst of the power loss. The well enacted backstories become key in the second act because we’ve become invested in their fates.
I was sad to lose them in the third act and to never know for sure what had killed them- guns, old age, or radiation. The third act was strange and fun and startling as we saw how 75+ years had transformed the idea of The Simpsons; it became strangely merged with the tale of the end of the world as we currently know it.
It left me wondering; regardless of if we have electricity or not 75 years from now, what will be the part of culture that survives? For all the brilliance of Mr. Burns, I really hope The Simpsons isn’t the one thing that future generations hold on to.