Arts & Culture

‘Mr. Burns’ examines growth of pop culture within society

‘The Simpsons’ serves as cultural pillar in post-apocalyptic world on stage in Leeds Theatre

Contributing Writer
Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Sock and Buskin’s “Mr. Burns, A Post-Electric Play” lights up the stage with superb acting, powerful commentary and candle lighting. Opening Thursday and running through April 18 in the intimate Leeds Theater, the production, directed by Theatre Arts and Performance Studies Professor Connie Crawford, pushes audiences to contemplate how culture changes with society.

Written by Anne Washburn, the play is unconventionally split into three acts that take place chronologically but in distinctly separate times, all somewhere in the undisclosed future. In the first act, characters at a run-down, seemingly outdoor refuge complete with a fire pit and camping chairs collectively attempt to remember the “Cape Feare” episode of “The Simpsons.” But guards posted at the edges of the outpost alert the audience that this is no ordinary campfire conversation.

When a stranger named Gibson, played by Jesse Weil ’16, stumbles into camp, the drawing of guns disturbs the previous facade of calm, and references to quarantines and nuclear plant meltdowns reveal the post-apocalyptic state of the world. Weil’s believably nervous and shell-shocked performance bolsters the entire scene. Alarmingly, not even the characters know the full scope of the state of the world. Maria, played by Hiromi Komorita ’17, bemoans this, explaining, “I think I can handle anything if I know what it is.”

Some time later, in the second act, the characters from the first act have formed a theater troupe that recreates scenes from “The Simpsons.” Because their destroyed world lacks electricity and many recognizable aspects of society, they must use the little that they have — candles and duct tape — to build their sets. Additionally, many groups memorializing “The Simpsons” like theirs also exist, forcing them to buy lines from people who can remember other parts of “The Simpsons” in order to maintain their competitive edge. Besides a shortage of lines, the lack of electric power creates demand for items like lithium batteries and flashlights.

A bizarre mash-up of pop songs written by Professor of Music Wang Lu marks the end of the second act. Quincy, played by Julia Fein ’18, complements the mash-up’s symbolization of cultural breakdown with some of the act’s closing words, in which she declares that the power of a cartoon lies in its lack of motivation or consequence. “Where else do we get that? No where!” she says. 

A sign presented before the beginning of the third act announces that 75 years have passed, though 750 might be more plausible. Costumes have morphed from drab to colorful, from mundane to zany, and music is almost ever-present in this heavily futuristic final act. The Simpsons have attained mythical status. Their original story now intertwines with reality: “No one knew to flee, only one family,” one character says. After some drawn-out singing, Mr. Burns, the antagonist in “The Simpsons” played by Evan Silver ’16, appears and challenges Bart Simpson, played by Weil, to a duel.

Sheets handed to every audience member before the third act read, “Every story ends on a dark and raging river.”

And a dark and raging river it is. On the surface, the play tells a story about the ways culture changes to reflect society. The plot illuminates this clearly by directly highlighting the transformation of “The Simpsons” from casual retelling to staged re-creation to mythic legend. “It was very important to us that the main story was clear to the audience, regardless of whether or not they have seen ‘The Simpsons,’” Crawford wrote in an email to The Herald.

Beneath the obvious, there is another, darker layer to the play. The nuclear catastrophes wreak havoc on society in the first act. But even in the second act, once people have moved beyond sheer terror and begun to rebuild, even in a society in which the culture has been unplugged, greed and competition still exist and haunt the characters’ lives.

Mr. Burns is the selfish, power-hungry villain in the third act — the individual human embodiment of the corrosive social conditions that surface in the second. Bart Simpson appears to defeat Mr. Burns and what he represents, with the force of love, backed by his family.

“How a group of people struggle to build and maintain a loving (if flawed) family is the essential question of this play for me,” Crawford wrote. Bart demonstrates the power of this familial support, singing,“Life never dies in memory, and I will meet life gloriously.”

But then Mr. Burns pops out from backstage on a stationary bike affixed with wires, powering something — a nuclear generator, perhaps? This closing, salient image is foreshadowed by some of Mr. Burns’ earlier words: “I’m never leaving. I don’t go away.”

Correction: A previous version of this article stated that Jenny, played by Jenna Chapman ’19, said “I think I can handle anything if I know what it is.” In fact, the character Maria played by Hiromi Komorita ’17 said this. Additionally, a previous version of this article quoted a character as saying “One family survived: The Simpsons.” In fact, the character said “No one knew to flee, only one family.” Also, a previous version of this article stated that Bart sang “Life never dies; I will meet my life so gloriously.” In fact, he sang “Life never dies in memory, and I will meet life gloriously.” Additionally, a previous version of this article stated that Quincy, played by Julia Fein ’18, said “Meaningless entertainment is actually pretty hard.” In fact, she said “Meaning is everywhere. We get meaning for free, whether we like it or not. Meaningless entertainment, on the other hand, is actually pretty hard.” The Herald regrets the errors. 

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