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'Mr. Burns' And Friends, Surviving Long Past The End Times

Sep 6, 2013
Originally published on September 6, 2013 6:11 pm

If the world as we know it comes to an end, will art survive? And if it does, what kinds of stories will be told after the apocalypse? The answer might surprise you.

The lights come up on a group of people around a campfire in the woods, trying to recall all the details of the hilarious Simpsons episode "Cape Feare," a parody of the Robert Mitchum and Robert De Niro movies, in which Bart Simpson is stalked by the evil but incompetent Sideshow Bob.

Then one member of the group hears a sound in the woods, and all of a sudden guns are drawn. Turns out something bad has happened. Something very, very bad: The electrical grid is down, nuclear plants are imploding, most of the population of the United States has been wiped out.

"I wanted to take a pop-culture narrative and push it past the apocalypse and see what happened," says Anne Washburn. She's the author of Mr. Burns: A Post-Electric Play, an audacious three-act drama that takes place in three different eras: right after the apocalypse, seven years after that, and 75 years further down the road. The show had its world premiere at Washington, D.C.'s Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, a notable new-play incubator, and runs at New York's Playwrights Horizons through Oct. 6.

In each of its three acts, Washburn's survivors recount that Simpsons episode, which has become a symbol of all that has been lost and what hope may be found. And with each retelling, the story changes.

"I was thinking, 'What happens to the story? What's the game of telephone? What changes, and why does it change?,' " Washburn says. "That was the question. What version led to what version? And who are the people who change a version?"

'People Would Want To Tell Stories'

In the first act, the strangers around the fire are just trying to hold onto their immediate past — in a world where there's now no electricity, never mind Google.

In the second act, these same strangers have formed a theater troupe that goes around the blighted, dangerous countryside, performing Simpsons episodes — complete with commercials — for other survivors. Show composer Michael Friedman says Washburn has gotten at something about the creative impulse.

"When we think about apocalypse and zombie movies," he says, "we always think about society falling apart and everybody eating each other and killing each other and shooting and horror. And we don't think [that] probably people would want, even then, to be entertained. People would want to tell stories. There would be still people who would sing, who would dance, who would act, who would perform, even in the worst of times."

Actor Colleen Werthmann says she and her cast mates are constantly negotiating a razor's edge between comedy and tragedy.

"The experience of performing inside this play is sort of like balancing on top of a scaffold over a giant chasm of grief that you never want to quite look all the way into," she says. "And it's also extremely joyful because, you know, as theater people who are making this play, the play ultimately is a real testament to the power of human storytelling."

A Culture 'Rebuilt From The Ashes'

The third act, which takes place 82 years after the apocalypse, is almost entirely musical — and highly stylized, delivered by actors playing Bart and Homer and Mr. Burns, not to mention Itchy and Scratchy, in masks.

"It's the music theater of the future," says composer Michael Friedman — "somewhere between a Passion play and a Greek drama and an operetta and a musical and a pop music concert."

And the story of that earthly apocalypse is woven, now, into the "Cape Feare" narrative.

"The cataclysm is still really fresh in everyone's mind because they've heard about it from someone who lived through it, but very few people are left who experienced it directly," writer Anne Washburn explains. "So at that point, you can take the same material and you can use it to speak more directly about what happened. You're still not telling the story realistically, but you're able to at least approach it allegorically or symbolically."

That journey — from tales around a campfire to a traveling theater troupe to a formal theatrical performance — comprises a kind of history of the future, says director Steve Cosson.

"You're really tracing the creation of art," he says. "Not just theater, but the creation of culture being rebuilt from the ashes of our civilization."

And it all starts, strangely enough, with The Simpsons.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel. If the world as we know it comes to an end, will art survive? And if it does, what kinds of stories will be told after the apocalypse? Well, a new off-Broadway play by Anne Washburn asks those questions, and the answer is live-action episodes of "The Simpsons." Jeff Lunden explains.

JEFF LUNDEN, BYLINE: The lights come up on a group of people around a campfire in the woods, trying to recall all the details of the hilarious "Simpsons" episode "Cape Fear," a parody of the Robert Mitchum and Robert De Niro movies in which Bart Simpson is stalked by the evil and incompetent Sideshow Bob.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "MR. BURNS")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Homer is like, hey everybody, want to drive through that cactus patch? And they're like, yay!

(AUDIENCE LAUGHTER)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) And Sideshow Bob is hiding on underneath. Ouch! Ouch! Ouch!

(AUDIENCE LAUGHTER

LUNDEN: Then, one of the people in the group hears a sound in the woods and all of a sudden, guns are drawn. It turns out something bad has happened - something very, very bad. The electrical grid is down; nuclear plants are imploding; most of the population of the United States has been wiped out.

ANNE WASHBURN: I wanted to take a pop-culture narrative and push it past the apocalypse, and see what happened.

LUNDEN: Anne Washburn is the author of "Mr. Burns," an audacious, new three-act play which takes place in three different eras: right after the apocalypse, seven years after that, and 75 years farther down the road. And in each act, the survivors recount "The Simpsons' " "Cape Fear" episode, which has become a symbol of all that has been lost, and what hope may be found. With each retelling, the story changes.

WASHBURN: I was thinking, what happens to the story? What's the game of Telephone? What changes, and why does it change? That was the question; what version led to what version? And who are the people who change a version?

LUNDEN: In the first act, the strangers around the fire are just trying to hold on to their immediate past in a world where there's now no electricity, never mind Google. In the second act, these strangers have formed a theater troupe, which goes around the blighted and dangerous countryside, performing "Simpsons" episodes and commercials for survivors. Michael Friedman is the show's composer.

MICHAEL FRIEDMAN: When we think about apocalypse and zombie movies, we always think about society falling apart, and everybody eating each other and killing each other, and shooting and horror. And we don't think, probably people would want, even then, to be entertained. People would want to tell stories. There would be - still - people who would sing, who would dance, who would act, who would perform, even in the worst of times.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "MR. BURNS")

COLLEEN WERTHMANN: (As character) On to the commercial - go, go, go! Two, three, four.

(CAST MEMBERS SINGING)

LUNDEN: Colleen Werthmann is one of the actors in "Mr. Burns." She says she and her fellow castmates are constantly negotiating a razor's edge between comedy and tragedy.

WERTHMANN: The experience of performing inside this play is sort of like balancing on top of a scaffold over a giant chasm of grief that you never want to quite look all the way into. And it's also extremely joyful because, you know, as theater people who are making this play, the play ultimately is a real testament to the power of human storytelling.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "MR. BURNS")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: (As character) (Singing) I stand on the deck, I feel the boat sway. Twigs pass on the current. My old life floats away...

LUNDEN: The third act, which takes place 82 years after the apocalypse, is almost entirely musical and delivered by actors playing Bart and Homer and Mr. Burns, and Itchy and Scratchy - in masks. Here's how composer Michael Friedman describes it.

FRIEDMAN: It's the music theater of the future, somewhere between a passion play and a Greek drama, and an operetta and a musical and a pop music concert.

(SOUNDBITE OF SINGING IN PLAY, "MR. BURNS")

LUNDEN: In this highly stylized third act, the story of the apocalypse is woven into the "Cape Fear" narrative, says playwright Anne Washburn.

WASHBURN: The cataclysm is still really fresh in everyone's mind because they've heard about it from someone who lived through it, but very few people are left who experienced it directly. So at that point, you can take this same material, and you can use it to speak more directly about what happened. You're still not telling the story realistically, but you're able to at least approach it allegorically, or symbolically.

LUNDEN: That journey - from tales around a campfire to a traveling theater troupe, to a formal theatrical performance - is a kind of history of the future, says director Steve Cosson.

STEVE COSSON: So you're really tracing the creation of art - not just theater, but the creation of culture being rebuilt from the ashes of our civilization.

LUNDEN: And it all starts, strangely enough, with "The Simpsons." "Mr. Burns: A Post-Electric Play" will be running at Playwrights Horizons off Broadway, through Oct. 6th.

For NPR News, I'm Jeff Lunden in New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.