On October 5th, 2018, I saw a seldom electrifying production of Mr. Burns, a Post Electric Play, which was being put on by Texas State’s Department of Theatre and Dance at the Patti Strickel Harrison Theatre. The play, written by Anne Washburn and directed by Issac Byrne, is about a group of apocalypse survivors retelling an episode of The Simpsons and how that episode’s lore changes over the course of 75 years, and boy does it change. This dark comedy goes from what could initially be described as a melodrama, to a Saturday Night Live sketch, to a hip-pop-rock opera as it explores the idea of what would happen if you stretched a beloved series past the comfort of what you know, and watched it transform into something hardly recognizable after decades of minor, and then major, plot changes. Although Mr. Burns, a Post Electric Play seems to have it all—an interesting concept, show-stopping music numbers, wonderful set pieces, a slew of costume changes and a cast and crew giving it their all—I couldn’t help but feel overwhelmed by my confusion of the whole play, which lasted well into the final act. I would be lying, not only to myself, but to everyone if I said I would be able to sit through another showing of this production, let alone recommend it to someone else.
Regardless, we’re going to start out on a positive note because the acting was phenomenal. While I’ve always been dismissive of plays, as theatre is not my preferred entertainment medium, I’ve always been a sucker for great acting ability and I believe every single young actor in this show was simply outstanding. There were a few standouts in the cast, particularly Shane Satterfield and Ana Puig, who were the final act’s incarnations of Mr. Burns and Bart Simpson, which meant that, luckily for us and them, they got all the solos. Satterfield was having an infectious amount of fun playing an especially sinister Mr. Burns—he dances and raps. Meanwhile, Puig gave her best Idina Menzel impersonation, as she has a voice that could satisfy even the most pretentious audience member. Not only were their show stopping numbers the best in the play, but they made the whole thing worth it. While I was initially a little surprised that a woman was playing the character of Bart Simpson, I quickly realized that this was true to form, considering that a woman has always voiced Bart Simpson in the television series, so I thought that was, not only fun, but smart that they decided to carry that little factoid over to the production.
In addition to great acting, the production value was nothing to scoff at. The set pieces and costumes start off relatively simple in the first act, consisting of nothing more than a man-made tent and camp fire that the casually dressed characters discussed The Simpsons episodes around. In the second act, the stage was transformed into something like an access cable comedy show set, filled with cheaply made props and costumes. The final act, and arguably the best part of the entire show, has the most beautifully elaborate set pieces and costumes, consisting of a gorgeous arch and moving waves that are lit in a way that reminded me of Christmas and a high school Spring Fling Dance. It was marvelous.
Although it may seem like I’m raving about this show, and in hindsight I may have enjoyed it more than I initially thought, I just can’t get over how confused I was for most of the production. By the time the intermission came, I looked to my fellow audience members for guidance on what had been happening for the past hour and a half, but to my surprise I was not alone in my confusion. Funny enough, we had formed a huddle in the aisles as we tried to decipher the messages of what had been unfolding in front of us and even though the final act made it all worth it, it felt like it took an eternity to get there.
There’s an argument to be made that my confusion about the overall structure of the play was intentional and serves as a metaphor that’s meant to represent the characters’ confusions on how to continue living life, post-apocalypse. Maybe that is the case, but I just can’t bring myself to recommend a slow burn, such as this, to people as impatient as those I associate myself with. After a little research into the play’s background, I learned that Washburn originally thought of various popular television series to center the story around. She went from Friends, to Cheers, to M*A*S*H before ultimately landing on The Simpsons and after learning this information I’m really conflicted, because while The Simpsons was probably the most accessible of those choices, I would’ve loved to have seen a Friends incarnation of this show, but that’s just because, like the rest of the American population, I’m a sucker for that theme song.