The Bard and Bart Simpson: A Natural Pairing?

Rick Miller uses
Rick Miller uses "Simpsons" characters to channel "Macbeth" in his multimedia show at Woolly Mammoth. (By Michael Cooper)
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By Celia Wren
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, October 12, 2008

Birnam Wood is now a golf course, and the ghostly dagger that spooks the murder-bound Macbeth is now a ghostly pizza.

The Scottish play has undergone a few adjustments in "MacHomer," the Bard-meets-the-Simpsons mash-up now strutting and fretting its hour-plus upon the Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company stage. Canadian artist Rick Miller's multimedia solo show draws 85 percent of its text straight from Shakespeare, but the writer-performer channels the language through the voices of some 50 Matt Groening characters, producing a tale that's full of sound, fury and "D'ohs."

If a 12-year record of touring is anything to go by, it all adds up to a hefty entertainment quotient.

"MacHomer" is "a one-joke show that's pushed about as far as it can go," Miller volunteered cheerfully in a recent phone interview from Toronto, where he lives.

That caveat notwithstanding, he doesn't see the work as a colossal dis to the swan of Avon. "I try to stay as loyal to Shakespeare as possible," says Miller, observing that the spoof appeals both to Stratford die-hards and to fans of the beloved Fox network cartoon.

Both contingents, it seems, can appreciate the nutty correspondences in this 80-minute novelty act, which casts Homer and Marge Simpson as the Macbeth spouses; Springfield Nuclear Power Plant head honcho Mr. Burns is King Duncan; Principal Skinner is a witch; Bart is Banquo's son Fleance; and Krusty the Clown becomes the carousing Porter.

The show was conceived as a joke. In 1994, Miller was playing the Second Murderer in a production of "Macbeth," and -- having a little too much time on his hands backstage -- he cobbled together the "Simpsons" homage as a skit for the cast party. When the bit of buffoonery proved popular, he spun the material into a 45-minute comedy sketch aimed at fringe festivals and the like. In the interest of polish, he honed his impressions of specific "Simpsons" voices, recording the show on audiotape so he could listen and parrot at his leisure. "I would play it in my car, because I was too embarrassed to make crazy sounds in my apartment," he says.

The 45-minute "MacHomer," which he toured for several years, met with considerable success, but its creator wasn't satisfied. "I wanted to turn it into more of a play," Miller says. "More of a production of 'Macbeth,' really."

To that end, he invited his friend Sean Lynch -- who had played Macduff in that catalyzing "Macbeth" production -- to come aboard as director. "The storytelling was already so sound, by the time I came onto it, that what he really needed from me was a very solid eye when it came to his physical production," says Lynch, who has expertise in multimedia stagings.

The director helped craft the current version of the show, which incorporates video elements, while still drawing its momentum principally from Miller's manic energy as he toggles from role to role. "It's just like a dance: He's literally morphing from one character to another," Lynch says.

The revised "MacHomer" premiered at the Edinburgh Festival, where Miller fortuitously crossed paths with Groening and his colleagues, who happened to be on a promotional European tour. "I think they were happily surprised that I wasn't a complete geek or loser," Miller says. In subsequent years, he says, the "Simpsons" creative team has permitted "MacHomer" to continue treading what is essentially slippery legal territory. "They've been very supportive," he says in a grateful tone.

Admittedly, his project isn't exactly alien to the "Simpsons" satiric spirit to begin with. In the years since he first grafted Springfield, U.S.A., onto the Weird Sisters' Scotland, Miller has begun to discern a certain artistic and philosophical soundness in the goofy enterprise. After all, he points out, the Bard's writing sometimes touched on contemporary issues, just as the adventures of Bart & Co. do in our own era. Shakespeare "threw a lot of local references, and political references, into a bit of a melting pot, in the same way 'The Simpsons' does," says Miller, who might bolster his argument by citing "Macbeth" itself (the play shows evidence of having been written to harmonize with the worldview of King James I).


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