Thursday, October 03, 2013

Mr. Burns, A Post-Electric Play

Anne Washburn's Mr. Burns, A Post-Electric Play is not warm or fuzzy or uplifting or heartbreaking.  Its characters are not especially finely wrought or deeply nuanced, and do not Learn Something Important About Themselves Or Others by the curtain call. It is not propulsively plot-driven. Tidy exposition is never once slipped conveniently into the dialogue. The show is not really even about The Simpsons in the end--at least no more than, say, Gogol's "The Nose" is really about a nose.

Mr. Burns is mostly about how popular culture works, and the ways it flows, changes, and conforms--both immediately and in the long-term--to the changing needs of a changing populace. It is one of those dense, endlessly layered, brilliantly written pieces that commands your full attention and quietly blows your mind, even during passages when you don't fully understand what the hell is going on. And trust me, you won't always know what the hell is going on, because Washburn captures the way people talk--about pop culture, about themselves, about each other, about their world, about trauma and disaster--so exceptionally well that easy conveniences like exposition are sent packing. Which is as it should be, because when it comes to constructing and reconstructing cultural memory, being unable to fill in all of the gaps--or, sometimes, electing to fill the gaps with material that satisfies a collective need, even if it isn't as graceful or clear or accurate as it might be--is an enormous part of, if not the whole point.

What we do learn in the first act of the play, which is set "Near. Soon.": A random group of people have found one another after a series of nuclear disasters has wiped out most of the population of the country. As one would expect--since post-apocalyptic scenarios themselves are, after all, so deeply-rooted in American pop culture--supplies are dwindling; the power has failed; everyone carries guns and assumes the worst of strangers until convinced otherwise. The survivors don't have much to do but wait out the immediate future in the hopes that they will not die. Fighting off sorrow, dread and panic, they sit around a campfire and set about reconstructing as much of the "Cape Feare" episode from the fifth season of The Simpsons as they can. The act of linking themselves to a shared past, and thus to one another, is powerful balm for these mournful souls. Reconstructing a particularly beloved episode from an enormously popular show is certainly more pleasurable for them than the other activity they collectively engage in later in the scene, when a (friendly) stranger joins their group: taking turns listing the names and ages of their loved ones in hopes that the newcomer has seen or heard of them during his lonely, extensive wanderings. He hasn't. But he does have a really good memory, he performed in an amateur Gilbert and Sullivan troupe before disaster struck, and he knows some of the choicest lines from The Simpsons episode in question. And so, just like that, he becomes a member of the group.

This first scene is talky in the best sense of the term. Washburn's talent for dialogue is immediate and seductive. The scene also relies on spare, effective use of subtle movement: a furtive glance or the touch of a shoulder keys the audience in to the fact that two of the women in the group are deeply concerned about a sadder, more distant third. We learn little about these characters' bigger pictures--their pasts, their identities. One was married; one was from a very small town; one lived in the house the group is camping outside of. The gaps in their stories are--and remain--tantalizingly absent, but then, we don't share our lives with one another in times of crisis, now, do we? We worry after relative strangers, we dedicate ourselves to the issues at hand, we take care of what needs to be done, we help one another survive. And part of helping lies in working together toward the kind of comfort that camaraderie and shared memories provide.

The second act, set seven years later, has the same group--plus one new wanderer--frantically rehearsing what they've managed to reconstruct from the "Cape Feare" episode, complete with commercials. Again, we get only just enough backstory: the country is still a dangerous, semi-anarchical place; radiation sickness is still a cripplingly terrifying concern; a few of the characters seem to have paired off romantically; a few are less obviously traumatized than they were in act I. Accurate memories of popular culture before the disaster have become precious commodities that competing  troupes will pay for and jealously guard. Clearly, it is not just this group of survivors that prioritizes collective memory; the greater community does, too. As it rebuilds itself, then, this futuristic society gamely looks to the future while burying itself in the cozy, fleeting comforts of the increasingly-distant past.

Yet as preciously guarded as they are, the carefully amassed cultural indicators of the past have nevertheless begun to transform, to fuse into one another, to start to mean different things. Little details that no longer matter have begun to get lost as the past grows more distant (does it really matter, anymore, to this group of survivors that The Simpsons premiered in the 1990s, and not the 1970s?). Other details not only refuse to die, but have become larger, more relevant, more precious. The commercial the troupe rehearses in this act neatly demonstrates all of this, especially as it becomes clear it is not being used to sell anything. The commercial, which features a woman eager to take a long, hot bath after a hard day in the office, initially seems to be for a Calgon-like product. But as it plays out, it not only goes on for much longer than any contemporary commercial does, it also devolves into a long, chatty list of creature comforts that Americans once held dear, and that are slowly trickling away: hot baths, chilled wine, cans of soda, ice cubes . . . and the whole complicated structure of commerce that came along with it all. Commodity fetishism has become a weirdly longed-for phantom limb.

The final act, set 75 years later, is a full performance of "Cape Feare," which has changed slowly, if dramatically, over the many years that have passed. Like most aging popular culture references, it has been subject to a generations-long game of telephone, and now resembles a Kabuki-tinged operetta-cum-morality play, shot through with a dizzying number of pop culture references that have been drawn liberally (and not always accurately) from the 19th, 20th, and early 21st centuries. Washburn's packed, referential "script" has departed from the original episode in telling ways: Sideshow Bob has slowly morphed into Mr. Burns. Bart is the sole survivor in his family's struggle against this personification of evil "nucular" power. The show is still enormously layered and referential, but it is no longer funny. As an added plus, it features musical numbers by Michael Friedman, who is easily the most meta theater composer working today. References to songs, expressions, and actions that just will not die--lines from HMS Pinafore, sports chants, the macarena, that damned Des'ree song--float through the air and, just as you place them in their original time and setting, pop like soap bubbles.

What makes this play, and its show-within-a-show (within a show), so satisfying, intelligent, and effective is how brilliantly it demonstrates the symbiotic and sometimes directly contradictory relationship a culture has--and, Washburn implies, always will have--to its popular entertainments. We change them, they change us. They comfort us, they challenge us. They isolate us, they bring us closer together. They generate nostalgia, they propel us forward. They take us out of our lives, they become central to our lives. In short, to quote what I think I remember Homer saying once, in an episode I saw a long time ago, Mr. Burns, A Post Electric Play is funny because it's true.

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