this apocalypse, think “simpsons,” not zombies

salvation in springfield?

“Mr. Burns, a post-electric play” crafts a reality that is both welcoming and challenging as it follows a group of apocalypse survivors as they attempt to entertain and distract themselves by retelling episodes of “The Simpsons.” We see the story morph as the show’s setting jumps from ground zero in Act I to seven years later in Act II and 75 years later in Act III. The show invites the audience to immerse themselves in a distorted cultural spectacle, while also challenging them to make sense of the subsequent retellings of “The Simpsons”—and in doing so make sense of reality through storytelling.

In the first scene, the ensemble cast gathers around a decrepit couch. They look scruffy, with their slouchy beanies and fingerless gloves, backpacks strewn about, and a fire pit glowing in the center of the stage. They try to piece together the dialogue and plot of the “Simpsons” episode “Cape Feare.” The back-and-forth, seemingly spontaneous dialogue is amusing, even to someone like me who has never seen an episode of “The Simpsons.” “The Simpsons” seemed a clever choice of show for the play to center on because of the richness of its satire: In dealing with the episodes in question, the characters were also forced to discuss and verbally preserve related pop culture material (in this case, the film “Cape Fear” and its precursors).

Yet underneath the snappy, playful dialogue is an undercurrent of unease. Colleen (Zachary Riopelle ’19) sits silently in one corner, tears trickling down his face. And at the slightest unknown sound, characters who were a moment ago laughing about “Sideshow Bob” whip out multiple concealed guns. The sound of the seeming intruder is in fact Gibson (Jesse Weil ’16)—a socially awkward yet musically talented addition who earns the group’s trust when he remembers a key punchline from the “Cape Feare” episode.

The second act takes place seven years later and features the same group of survivors, who have now formed an acting troupe dedicated to performing “Simpsons” episodes, complete with their own original commercials for past luxuries like Diet Coke. While directing one particular commercial, Colleen reminds his crew to create a “reality that’s welcoming, not challenging”—quite a feat in this post-apocalyptic landscape. During the act, we learn how warring acting troupes fight over exclusivity rights. “Simpsons” lines serve as a kind of currency—and people who remember the best snippets of the show are paid handsomely. The fact that intellectual property rights still hold sway in a land overrun by chaos and destruction highlights the absurdity of capitalism in the new world order. Yet that world is a mirror of our own—and one whose core financial structures have not been compromised.

We watch as, seven years after the creation of any new media material, this acting troupe has no choice but to mash up the material it already has. In a hilarious and somewhat risque musical number, the cast remixes pop music favorites like Britney Spears’ “Toxic” and Imagine Dragons’ “Radioactive.” Formerly highbrow material is forgotten under the deluge of Top 40 hits; classic writers like Shakespeare and Conrad survive only in punny “Simpsons” episode titles like “Much Apu about Nothing” and “Bart of Darkness.”

Jenny (Jenna Chapman ’19) talks about the ledgers full of remembered “Simpsons” lines as “nothing but pen and paper.” Sometimes these lines are slightly altered in the retellings, but she maintains that once the details are agreed upon and written down, they become their own truth. “The Simpsons” essentially becomes the religion of the survivors.

At one point, Gibson suffers a mental breakdown, overwhelmed by the suppressed memory of the apocalypse. He shouts that “it’s all broken open,” referring to the multitudes of failed nuclear plants—but his comment rings true for the structure of narrative itself.

In the intermission before Act III, the audience members receive an old-fashioned single page brochure. On this new cast list, each actor is reassigned to a new role. The archaic language it employs suggests that each story, when left to run its course, will loop back around to the beginnings, to the unalterable core of all human narratives. “The Simpsons” episode “Cape Feare” is now a humanity-wide phenomenon and has been transformed from a mere cartoon into an extravagant, highbrow, operatic hip-hop theater pageant. The plot and characters have shifted over time to become more aligned with the desires and culture of a population still scarred from the apocalyptic event nearly a century earlier.

Throughout the new performance of “Cape Feare,” we recognize original lines intermingled with song mashups from the second act and even stray remarks made by characters from the first act that were incorporated into the collective script. Mr. Burns, played to the limits of comical melodrama by Evan Silver ’16, resembles nothing of the Mr. Burns from the original cartoon. He has come to embody the ultimate villain—radiation itself—and he hauntingly taunts that he will remain “forever.”

Admittedly, the third act at times feels incomprehensible and drawn out, although peppered with moments of humor. Yet the act perhaps necessarily drags out an antiquated yet triumphant revenge tragedy that would resonate with the suffering population of survivors that has managed to carry on even after the world has “broken open.”

This play glorifies the eternal human need to tell stories while simultaneously investigating the manner in which such stories change through generations and trauma. With each retelling, a story seems more familiar and comforting, yet it is altered word by word. “Mr. Burns” shows us a time-lapse version of not only the way we shape narratives, but the way they shape us.