Rational beings canonize weird shit, whether it's the apes in the original Planet of the Apes franchise worshipping a nuclear missile or, 2,000 years after the purported incident, many Christians venerating a wooden cross. But while one is fiction and the other, at the very least, is debatable, both were—or are—attempts to use symbols, metaphors and, most important, stories as ways to make sense of the world we find ourselves in by drawing connections to the past.
So maybe playwright Anne Washburn is onto something in Mr. Burns, a Post-Electric Play. Namely, when the real human-engineered apocalypse comes, after an epoch of pop culture as reigning mythology, the stories related by those who remain will stem from the material they are most familiar with.
And what more fitting material to resonate After the Fall than a TV cartoon that long since jettisoned its medium and exploded onto the popular consciousness? One that is just slightly innocent enough in its portrayal of a dysfunctional but ultimately loving family and just edgy, caustic and ironic enough to amuse the smart kids in the back row of the class? Namely, The Simpsons?
That's the set-up for Washburn's too long, too unfocused and really, really fucking interesting 2012 play, receiving a sincere, if uneven at times, production courtesy of a highly literate gypsy OC troupe, Alchemy Theatre Co. While steeped in Simpsons lore that show devotees can gleefully nerd out to, there's a lot more going on. Too much, in fact. But the result is a play, as well as a production, that absolutely feels different than most things you'll see on a local stage, particularly in a month of be-happy-or-else holiday chestnuts.
After a brief prelude in which a televised excerpt from The Simpsons episode that frames the first two acts, "Cape Feare," is interrupted by an emergency broadcast that hell on Earth has arrived (some combination of a flesh-eating-virus type of deal and nuclear reactors exploding), we find ourselves with five characters huddled around a makeshift fire in a trash can with a few accouterments—propane stove, a rifle, cinder blocks—that suggests every fucking insane redneck survivalist's wet fucking dream has arrived. To pass the time, or perhaps to retain some strand of normalcy in a now very un-normal world, Matt (an effective and likeable, like every member of the cast, Brian Pirnat) tries to piece together the plot of the aforementioned Simpsons episode, with occasional help from Jenny (Tara Pitt) and Maria (Brooke Lewis), as Sam (Craig Jackman), who is far more focused upon any interlopers discovering their camp, listens.
The arrival of one such interloper, Gibson (Phil Nieto), momentarily defuses the Simpsons re-enactment, as Washburn then buries the ears with a bunch of stuff about the fallout from the apocalyptic event, including each character reciting 10—10!—names of people who are missing. But once it's discovered that Gibson is a song-and-dance Gilbert & Sullivan aficionado, things go back to that Simpsons episode.
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Curtain. Seven years later, the characters, now joined by a noticed but unintroduced character from the first act, Colleen (Jessie Wise), who has somehow morphed into a no-nonsense director, are now a theater troupe. As with several competing troupes, it enacts Simpsons episodes on a Midwestern theater circuit. This is, by far, the most interesting part of Washburn's script, as issues of intellectual property, capitalism, and the conflict between commerce and art are explored. While the explorations don't add up to all that much—other than the uncomfortable reality that even in moments of legitimate crisis, people are still goddamn fucking people—there is a subtler and, arguably, more important concern: When stripped of technology and electricity and all this fucking bullshit that twinkles, blinks and shines (or, perhaps, when even fully immersed in it?), what will fuel the human imagination? Well, really, it's something truly simple and goddamn profound: theater. People telling stories, whether through words or music or a combination of both.
Then we get an unfortunate third act, set some 70 years after the second, in which a pastiche of morality play/Greek drama/light opera/Simpsons-turned-myth-exploring-the-human-condition-and-love-will-ultimately-prevail-over-evil ensues that, really, does not work.
While there are flaws with the script, with Jeff Lowe's direction—which sometimes, but not often enough, turns Washburn's script into an actual story as opposed to a theatrical exercise—the cast is deliriously gung-ho, and the three-person band playing Michael Friedman's score in the third act is spot-on. Ultimately, as one characters opines at some point, Mr. Burns is both tantalizing and tedious. And there's not enough in this script or production to adequately balance those conflicting scales. But it's hard to walk away from this without chewing on what you've just seen. Far too many plays, as written or staged, are unadventurous, unimaginative and just plain useless. This one isn't.
Mr. Burns at Costa Mesa Playhouse, 661 Hamilton St., Costa Mesa, (949) 650-5269; costamesaplayhouse.com. Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m. Through Dec. 16. $18-$20.