Meet The Simpsons
In Anne Washburn's 2012 marvel Mr. Burns: A Post-electric Play, the world ends not with a bang, but with a whisper: "I'm going to kill you, Bart Simpson."
No, wait, it's "Die, Bart, die," isn't it? I'm referring to the iconic "Cape Feare" episode from the fifth season of The Simpsons, a touchstone of pop culture. If you ever kept up with Homer, Marge, Bart, Lisa, and Maggie, I bet you could even recite a couple of the show's memorable lines.
That's what a group of survivors in Mr. Burns do following a mysterious apocalyptic event. Huddled around a trash-can fire, the motley crew tries to reconstruct the episode in an unacknowledged effort to distract themselves from encroaching danger. Stage West's fresh interpretation creates an eerie look at civilization clinging to its humanity, couched in Sideshow Bob impressions and snippets of Gilbert and Sullivan operetta.
If Washburn had set her entire play in this murky, tense world, the act of watching these frightened people seek out comfort would have eventually worn thin. Smartly, the second act skips ahead seven years, and the third act 75 years more after that. With each time change, The Simpsons become more a part of our mythology and history, as the animated residents of Springfield morph to fit fading memories and immediate societal needs.
In act two, roving troupes of performers — including our intrepid survivors — eke out a living by reenacting favorite (and some not so) episodes. It's a time where correctly remembering lines from the original show (or making up even better ones) can help you cheat death.
Even the commercials are re-created, portraying the cushy pre-apocalypse with absurd levels of self-absorption. This netherworld of humanity gives the design team at Stage West plenty with which to show off, as they must assemble gloriously low-fi yet admittedly genius costumes and props.
By the finale, The Simpson family has reached near mythical proportions, starring in a heavily stylized and even more heavily rewritten stage version of "Cape Feare." Bart is a princely hero and Mr. Burns (Sideshow Bob having been lost to the annals of history) has transformed into a murderous ghoul.
The sets, costumes, props, and lighting become more impressive with each act. But it's Garret Storms' acute direction that keeps these Twilight Zone worlds spinning.
Storms has an immensely talented cast, including Ian Ferguson, Jessica Cavanagh, Kelsey Leigh Ervi, Mikaela Krantz, Henry Greenberg, and Caroline Dubberly. Amy Mills makes a haunting cameo in the third act, while Paul Taylor stuns as the nightmarish Mr. Burns.
Though technically a play, there is quite a bit of music in the show. (Washburn and Michael Friedman collaborated on the score.) The purgatory version of America in the second act, especially, has multiple aspects of pop culture float into the performance, with an a capella mashup being particularly enjoyable.
The accessibility of a play about a cartoon, a wonderful combination of high-brow and low-brow entertainment, mirrors the astounding success of The Simpsons. It is, as Mr. Burns would say, "Excellent."
Mr. Burns: A Post-electric Play runs through September 13 at Stage West in Fort Worth.