What can we – as American adults – all share a conversation about? Common threads connect us, sure. Mortality. Affection for one, if not many, of our family members. A dislike for some Christmas songs that grows by the year, then plateaus. But unless you’ve had too many to drink, there’s no excuse for making any of those subjects the theme of conversation, particularly with people you barely know.
For better or worse, pop culture represents a shared language. Everyone may not know the films of the Coen Brothers, or that the ending for TV show "Lost" was really disappointing. But for those that do, it’s something to discuss. This link is the foundation of "Mr. Burns: A Post-Electric Play", which is running at Seattle's ACT Theater until November 15. It received significant accolades off-Broadway and in DC, where it was first staged.
The play centers on a group of survivors of a vaguely defined apocalypse. Nuclear fallout is alluded to. So are gangs of gun-toting marauders. All this is par for the course in apocalypse fiction. What is so original about the play is the characters are not overly focused on it, or on a quest to fix anything. They’re simply trying to take their minds off the situation. Later, they work to help others do the same. And they do this by remembering an episode of The Simpsons.
At its core, the play is about recollecting a piece of pop culture, and sharing that memory. In its understanding of how people often connect with strangers and find meaning in diversion – and in a wild third act, its references to the origins of theater – Mr. Burns hits on something smart and important.
The key to the play is a Simpsons episode, which is referenced throughout. Specifically, the episode in which Sideshow Bob attempts to murder Bart while he’s under the FBI's protection. Throughout the over 80 years of post-apocalyptic history the play covers, this episode gets remembered, replicated, and eventually used as an inspiration for something very different.
This episode provides a touchstone, a shared memory of better times for the characters. With that concept, the play could easily devolve into a mess or gimmick. It works partly due to a down-to-earth script, which was worked out by improv actors sitting in a room and trying to find a Simpsons episode that everyone could recollect.
But the production’s true saving grace is the quality of its cast. Adam Standley takes the spotlight as the most theatric of the apocalyptic troupe, eventually transforming into a version of Mr. Burns that bears some similarity to Heath Ledger’s Joker in The Dark Knight. Erik Gratton provides an introduction into the play’s world, carrying the first act on his shoulders and boasting a serious impression of Homer Simpson. These two performances book-end what is otherwise an ensemble piece, with ACT vets Anne Allgood and Christine Marie Brown, as well as promising newcomers Claudine Mboligikpelani Nako, Andrew Lee Creech and Bhama Roget rounding out one of the theater’s most creative offerings in recent memory.