My Thoughts About Anne Washburn’s “Mr. Burns, a post electric play,” now at ACT Theatre

Some of my best thoughts come to me while I am doing something relatively automatic, like walking or showering or exercising. All during my Jazzercise session this morning, I was thinking about this play, which opens in the present with a group of people who have survived the collapse of all the energy systems in the world. I came home ready to begin writing, and discovered the power was out, probably due to the high winds this morning. I couldn’t use my computer for anything, I couldn’t make phone calls on my wireless land line (except in the laundry room which has a hard wired connection), I couldn’t do laundry, I couldn’t charge my cell phone, I had no heat or light. I was post electric…

So back to the first act of Mr. Burns. There they are, this small group of survivors, huddled around a campfire, keeping themselves focused, sane and alive, by telling stories. Stories–that’s what the play is about, and the story this group has chosen to recall is an episode of The Simpsons, the Cape Feare episode.

I used to be a fan of the Simpsons, until I switched to Masterpiece Theatre on Sunday nights, but I have never seen the Cape Feare episode. My favorite is the Streetcar Named Desire episode, where Marge plays Blanche. Cape Feare was originally seen by many as a movie, actually two movies, the first created in 1962, the second a re-make in 1991. Don tried to order either from Netflix, moving them to first and second places on our list, but received for the first time ever a note that the movie was in high demand and we would have a long wait. Neither one can be streamed, but he found this short description: it’s about a pederast and rapist.

However, we were able to watch The Simpsons Cape Feare episode just by typing Simpsons Cape Feare on our browser. Briefly, it opens with Bart receiving threatening letters from Sideshow Bob who is in prison. Bart was involved in putting him away. Sideshow Bob is paroled, and the Simpsons are sent to live on a houseboat on Terror Lake in the Witness Protection Program. Bob follows them, ties up the family, and cuts the boat loose. Bart has a last request: he asks Sideshow Bob to sing the whole of the Gilbert and Sullivan repertoire, which he does.

Returning to the play…

The first act, as I said, set in the present, with survivors huddled around a campfire telling the story of the Cape Feare episode of the Simpsons. The second act, seven years later, has the survivors in some kind of building, maybe a dwelling. They are still telling the story, and as they recall certain lines the line has value, and the person who remembers that line has ownership of it. So it’s a kind of economic system with the mediums of exchange being lines from the episode. Still no electric power, but the survivors are creating “programs” with commercials and music for television, using candles and mirrors in an empty television set. You have to see it to get it.

Intermission followed, and while people my age were saying, what’s it all about? younger audience members were trading lines that they remembered. (There were sections of the audience who laughed and laughed all through the first two acts–not my section.) The third act takes place seventy-five years later. The set is amazing, elaborate and colorful. The story has become a kind of ritual, with the actors donning Simpson masks. They act out scenes from the episode. “Cape Feare” is on a lake and the stage morphs into a boat, with the villain after Bart.

That’s my take on the play. Now that I’ve thought about it a little, I want to see it again. The reviews have been ecstatic and the audiences love it. Single ticket sales are soaring. Now you’re on your own!

 

 

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