Let’s say that seven years ago, a series of melt-downs and fires killed 99% of all people. Electricity is gone. Cans of Diet Coke are a rare commodity, even though, statistically, they donn’t seem like they should be (there were a LOT of Cokes in the world vs few people surviving, right?) Forgetting for a moment that batteries and some ingenuity OUGHT to make it possible to rig up a TV now and then, let’s say that every bit of recorded media - TV, CDs, computers, etc - are just as gone as most of your loved ones, and no one’s seen a bit of television or heard a rock song in seven years.
Living in that world, when you went out for entertainment, which would you really rather see - a Shakespeare play, or a theatrical recreation of one of your favorite Simpsons episodes, complete with commercials? Sure, they get some scenes wrong and the costumes are awful, but imagine how much more of a comfort food a sitcom could become in that world. Besides being funny and brilliant enough to remind us that humanity did some good things before, and could do so again…well, don’t tell me you never spend an afternoon watching old commercials from your childhood on youtube. Nostalgia would be important in that world - theatrical recreations of TV shows wouldn’t just bring back memories, they would assure that not everything was lost. We still had the stories.
This is the setup for Act 2 of Mr Burns: A Post Electric Play, now in previews at Theater Wit on Belmont here in Chicago. Having read about the show when it first premiered, I bought a ticket for the very first preview. After a sort-of meandering first act, in which a group of survivors huddled in the woods shortly after some sort of nuclear holocaust compare notes, trade rumors, and amuse themselves by trying to remember every detail of Cape Feare (the episode where the Simpsons go into Witness Protection while fleeing Sideshow Bob), Act 2 picks up 7 years later, following the members of a ragtag theatrical troupe who specializes in Simpsons episodes. Some of their recreations are better than others. To fill the gaps, they buy “lines” from people who remember them (or claim to), they envy troupes with enough batteries to use flashlights on “A Streetcar Named Marge,” debate whether they should produce a shitty “The Springfield Files” just because people remember loving the episode, and help each other cope - with PTSD, with ever-present fears of brain damage or more fires, and with the constant threat of violence and dwindling resources. It’s a brilliant set-up, and I only wished it were longer. This concept of post-apocalyptic repertory theatre is so richly presented, so vividly imagined, that I wanted this troupe to have its own TV series.
Even in this world, though, in the first years after the grid came down when authenticity in scripts is still currency, the stories are starting to evolve in tiny little ways to fit the changing needs of the audience.
Moving up 75 years in the timeline, the third act is another troupe’s version of “Cape Feare,” an odd kabuki Gilbert and Sullivan panto in which the story is barely recognizable. Few alive by this time can probably remember actually seeing an episode of The Simpsons, and the story has changed with the times. Now, The Simpsons are fleeing nuclear fallout, not Sideshow Bob, and the villain has become Mr. Burns (an obvious symbol for the nuclear plants that had something to do with the holocaust).It’s a hilarious, utterly strange, terribly disturbing, and finally uplifting melange of second-hand pop culture references - besides The Simpsons there’s some Eminem, Return of the Jedi, Night of the Hunter, and other snippets that have survived and simply become a part of a new generation’s consciousness. We can see many of the layers of purpose this version of the show holds for its intended post-apocalypic audience: comfort, a connection to the past, memory of a trauma still felt, even second-hand, and the power of music, stories and love to inspire resilience in terrible circumstances. Even when the changes from the source material seem bizarre, we understand how they evolved.
And hell, maybe these stories have already evolved. During the recent “Every Simpsons Ever” marathon I sat parked in front of my screen for days, feeling like my life was flashing before my eyes and seeing parallels between characters in The Simpsons and characters in The Pickwick Papers, which previous generations knew as well as we know The Simpsons. My rambles on it went on long enough to fill half a book.
Mr Burns: A Post Electric Play is one of the strangest plays I have ever seen, and one of the most thought-provoking in its commentaries on the power and purpose of narrative and pop culture. The sense of camaraderie one sometimes senses in the characters felt as though it extended into the audience; I’ve seldom seen a play inspire so much friendly chatter among strangers between acts. It’s not a perfect play, but it’s certainly one I’ll never forget.