In Woolly Mammoth’s ‘Mr. Burns,’ reconstructing a cartoon and a civilization

May 25, 2012

In a post-apocalyptic world, after the grid’s gone dead, people sit around a campfire and tell stories for entertainment.

But their tales are not classics of Greek mythology or of literature or religion.

They try to recall old episodes of “The Simpsons.”

It’s not unusual in barrooms or schoolrooms to hear people of a certain age recite scene-by-scene descriptions of their favorite “Simpsons” episodes — that’s the beauty of the series that’s been on for 23 seasons.

But in the bleak world depicted in the new work by Anne Washburn, “Mr. Burns: A Post-Electric Play,” premiering Monday at the Woolly Mammoth Theatre, an episode of the series is recalled as a way to collectively connect to the pre-disaster past.

Wooly Mammoth Theatre, Mr. Burns, May 2012. (Photo by Michael Bailey)

Eventually the episodes become the stuff of theatrical reproduction, until much later, they’re grand operas, classics of a postmodern age — the art of an ancient world brought to life.

Starring Itchy and Scratchy.

It was isolated in a vault beneath Wall Street that Washburn and her colleagues from the Civilians theater group began working on an idea for a play in 2008.

“We’d gotten one of these weird space grants that they were giving out that summer where we had a couple of free days in a disused bank vault deep underneath Wall Street,” Washburn said during a break in rehearsals at Woolly.

What would happen to a modern pop narrative if civilization were removed, wondered Washburn, who has written for productions at the American Repertory Theater, Cherry Lane Theatre, London’s Gate Theatre and D.C.’s Studio Theatre, among other places.

The resulting “Mr. Burns” closes out a season at the D.C. theater in which audiences were asked: “Does civilization have an expiration date?”

The experiment on remembering a specific “Simpsons” episode — in this case “Cape Feare,” the takeoff of the movie classic from Season 5, fit well with the theme, Washburn says. “Because the original ‘Cape Fear’ was all about coping when civilization has been removed: How you survive in that time?”

As the group of actors recalled parts of the episode down in that vault, Washburn took it all down.

“They didn’t always have great accuracy.” She says. “But they remembered it with great gusto.”

Their discussions made up most of Act 1.

When the cast first recalls the episode around a campfire, “it looks very innocuous,” Washburn says. “But after a certain point, you realize they’re more serious.”

It becomes clear there’s been some sort of societal breakdown and collapse of the electrical grid. Recollecting this shard of pop culture past is a way to occupy themselves, she says, “because you’ve got to think about something else.”

By the second act, a troupe has been formed to act out that episode, to divert other survivors.

By the third act, she says, “it’s much further into the future. We see how the story has changed and how the use of the story has changed.”

In fact, it’s become a musical — with original music by Michael Friedman, echoes of Gilbert and Sullivan and bits of pop music from the early 21st century.

The humor of the cartoon remains, but there is darkness all around.

It’s the same mix of tones Washburn tried to combine the last time she was in D.C., adapting Euripides in “Orestes: A Tragic Romp” at the Folger Theatre in 2010.

“One of the things I loved about ‘Orestes’ is how it deals with light and dark at the same time,” she says.

Adapting “The Simpsons” may bring in a whole new audience to the theater, which Washburn says she welcomes.

“I like very much the idea of mixed audiences — audiences of experienced theater watchers and new theater watchers,” she says. “When they’re in the audience at the same time, they can really feed off each other’s energy.”

And should “Simpsons” superfans show up on talk-back nights to correct plot points as the characters in “Mr. Burns” do, Washburn welcomes that, as well.

“I think there are many people who know more about ‘The Simpsons’ than we do,” she says. “And we will allow them to gently correct us.”

Catlin is a freelance writer.

Mr. Burns,A Post-Electric Play

by Anne Washburn, with music by Michael Friedman. Directed by Steve Cosson. About 2 hours 15 minutes. Appropriate for age 14 and older. Monday through July 1. Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, 641 D St. NW. 202-393-3939. www.woollymammoth.net.

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