Since Noah and his ark, people have toyed with the question: What happens when the world as we know it collapses? Answers have ranged from ridiculous explosion-soaked blockbusters (This Is the End, etc.) to chilling novels of dystopia (see: The Road). Now playwright Anne Washburn adds a celebratory new wrinkle to the disaster canon with the unclassifiable Mr. Burns: A Post-Electric Play.Destruction and despair are both present in Washburn’s tale, but they loom quietly in the small space of the Aux Dog Theatre (3011 Monte Vista NE). On a stark stage, five people gather around a fire. From their ragged clothes and wariness, it’s clear this is no camping trip. But before we learn of their circumstances, they poke at the fire and try to recall, joke for joke, an episode of “The Simpsons.”Matt (Vincent Marcus Kirby), sitting on a deserted couch, describes a scene of Bart in a courtroom watching the murderous Sideshow Bob get pardoned. Two of Matt’s companions, Susannah (Alisia Downing) and Jenny (Jessica Osbourne), chime in with their own somewhat hysterical remembrances about the “Cape Feare” episode in which Sideshow Bob seeks to kill Bart—the episode itself an impersonation of a 1991 movie begat by an older movie that adapted a book. But the mood isn’t exactly light. Two other members rounding out the group are a silent reminder of danger. While Colleen (Alissa Hall) shakes and mutters in a corner, Sam (Patrick Maes) stands guard with a long rifle. Amidst a vague sense of threat, they too are eventually pulled into the antics. The cultural evolution of this particular (and popular) “Simpsons” episode is important in a play that explores what survives in an almost-erased world. On the bleak set, it’s cheering to witness everyone’s recollections of the beloved yellow family. “The cornerstone of their survival is our need for stories. It bonds them, entertains them, gets them through the really hard times,” says Aux Dog director Victoria J. Liberatori. In this damaged world it is “The Simpsons” that shows a zombie’s resilience, offers escape and an ability to evolve in a brutal, new world. After the sparse, fire-lit first act, time speeds ahead seven years to show the same group of survivors now traveling the country as an acting troupe. If this play’s first act captures—as it surely does—the starkness of a post-apocalyptic world and how that creates a hunger to find joy in something as “trivial” as “The Simpsons,” then the second act solidifies how emblematic this yellow family of five has become in an unstable world. The traveling performers, now inured to their “post-electric” existence, have fashioned Simpsons masks and sets, trying to remember exact lines and plot points. The actors and musical direction shine brightest in this act—the audience laughed more surely and more comfortably watching the cast try to stage the “Cape Feare” episode in the face of competing Simpsons ensembles.Diet Coke, running water and Chablis are all remembered vividly in a commercial sequence created by our troupe, but the enduring figures remain Homer and his clan. The actors discuss their favorite episodes and hum the infectious opening jingle. After removing the somewhat grotesque Simpsons heads, the group performs an impressive medley of pre-apocalypse pop hits, turning the Baha Men’s “Who Let the Dogs Out” into something poignant. (Yes, you read that right.) Amid the shine of Broadway bustle, danger still lurks as the stage goes dark for intermission.As audience members shared glances and murmurs afterwards, my companion and I tried to figure out what the last act could hold after the wildly varying tone, content and structure of the first two acts. So far, there was no discernible plot other than the devastation of a nuclear accident and an increasing veneration of “The Simpsons.” We couldn’t have predicted the entrancing and bewildering dark operetta that followed, though here again was a world regulated by the same themes: ruin and the redemption of story. The simple remembering of “Cape Feare” we saw in the first act transforms 70 years later into a dramatic presentation of tragedy and survival. In this final act, “We can see how stories of the post-apocalypse have been transmuted into a kind of high-art mythology based on the story of ‘The Simpsons,’” says Liberatori. In a play where Homer Simpson becomes the Supreme Being in the entertainment industry, those unfamiliar with “The Simpsons” may feel shut out. Lesser fans might miss some references to rakes and three-eyed fish. But with so many other motifs explored, you don’t have to write Ned Flanders fanfic to enjoy the show. Ultimately, the cast and staging engage the audience in this bizarre, 80-year-spanning tale. All eight cast members gamely inhabit their changing roles, with Fernando Gonzales as Mr. Burns and Jessica Osbourne as Bart notably formidable in the final act. These days, when fans can add their voices to any and all things pop culture, Mr. Burns appears especially meaningful. The play asks us to imagine what would endure and unify in the wake of a not-so-implausible devastating event, and by the end, it’s really not surprising that we are following the Simpsons’ large, four-toed footprints to salvation.
Mr. Burns: A Post-Electric PlayRuns through Sunday, Feb. 1Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm, Sundays at 2pmAux Dog Theatre3011 Monte Vista NEauxdog.com, 254-7716Tickets: $15 to $20 online, $25 at door