Houselights don’t gently dim at the outset of Mr. Burns, a post-electric play, A.C.T.’s new offering which opened last night. Instead, a spray of sparks plunges you in total darkness before bringing you to the campfire to join other survivors.
Once here, you mentally stumble, grasping at straws to determine what just happened, what details are relevant. The cast perseverates about fragments of rumors, trying to make sense of this world that was once familiar. Some kind of northern California nuclear disaster rendered the entire country a post-apocalyptic wasteland.
Our charmed circle at the fire travels packing because hostile strangers are doing the same. However, in the meantime, they exchange radiation poisoning worries while parsing new lines from The Simpsons.
I suspect that many will find Mr. Burns richly rewarding, largely because of nonstop references to “The Simpsons.” Opening night, a kind of appreciatively knowing laugh of recognition rose frequently, suggesting that this struck home. However, if you just aren’t into The Simpsons, or like me, made it this far in life without out ever seeing a single episode, you might want to sit this one out. There’s just too much here that will escape you – as it did me.
With that proviso – and it’s a big one – Mr. Burns is a thoughtful analysis of how social construction is based on shared stories of the past. The interface between pop culture and daily life is an obvious one for theatre, not the least because theatre traverses lives suspended in time and culture.
Mr. Burns follows the trajectory of these survivors, from their humble fire to an abandoned warehouse, most notable for the white light cutting through dirty smoked glass, indirectly illuminating bright graffiti on the walls. Dystopic though it may be, there’s forward energy here, if only for the acquisition of more lines, and the rights to those lines. The notion that one’s look can be crafted through product selection (chablis or water? Water or Diet Coke?) gets rediscovered, as commercials are enthusiastically created, touting products even more meaningless in this new world.
The notion that this involves a tribe of actors engaged in the recreation of The Simpsons shifts attention to the reception side of the story line as seen through the actors. Walter Benjamin’s ideas about all art needing recipients to carry it forward come to mind, as does his take on the reproducibility of art.
However, for Mr. Burns to work, and for those ideas to have a home, the audience must have some tolerance for the Madge’s blue hair and the general idiocy of The Simpsons. If you swim well in that mix, then Mr. Burns is for you.