The world premiere brings to a startling climax another vibrant season for Woolly Mammoth Theatre, which began 2011-12 with the striking “A Bright New Boise,” after years in which it unveiled talked-about works such as Mike Daisey’s “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs” — returning this summer — and Bruce Norris’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “Clybourne Park.” “Mr. Burns,” smashingly directed by Steven Cosson, artistic director of New York’s the Civilians, keeps Woolly on a trajectory as one of the most influential outposts for the best new American plays.
Surely other theater companies will clamor for “Mr. Burnses” of their own — it’s the sort of smart satire that cannot be presented in any medium better than the stage. It’s by no means a lampoon of “The Simpsons” — if anything, it holds up the program as something akin to the “Oedipus” or “Canterbury Tales” of our time. The cartoon is, rather, a vehicle for an entertaining fantasia on how the themes in art of one age might be transmuted by time and tragedy into poignant mythology in another.
Aided by a talent-stuffed cast of seven — Steve Rosen, Kimberly Gilbert, Chris Genebach, Erika Rose, James Sugg, Jenna Sokolowski and Amy McWilliams — Washburn and Cosson propel us forward nearly a century, as civilization suffers near-extinction and “The Simpsons” lives on. An unexplained cataclysm has eradicated electrical power and caused the control rods in nuclear facilities to super-heat and plants to explode, killing hundreds of millions.
The opening scene, set in a campsite in which survivors hunker down, is a sometimes harrowing depiction of the struggle to ascertain what’s happened. After a stranger, played by Genebach, wanders into camp, the survivors ritually pull out address books to compare notes with him on the names of others who might be alive.
For entertainment, though, they attempt to conjure “The Simpsons,” and it’s the “Cape Fear” episode that gets them going, as if they were half-stoned college sophomores reenacting choice scenes from “Reefer Madness.”
The conceit that electronic devices of all kinds are permanently kaput allows for storytelling to revert to an oral tradition. The hitch is that human memory is short, and as the decades pass in “Mr. Burns,” the accuracy of the account of the “Cape Feare” episode fades. Irony’s half-life proves even shorter; soon, no one recalls that the program was a joke. Ragtag acting troupes of the future appropriate the tale, adding their amusingly confused ideas of what commercials might have been like, complete with utterly superfluous snippets of songs by Ricky Martin and Lady Gaga.