Anne Washburn's three-act play is a wonderfully weird paean to pop culture's place in our lives.
The episode recap is among the weirder developments of online culture. Sites like the AV Club, Vulture and Entertainment Weekly have scores of writers glued to TV screens, ready to churn out not a review but a simple recounting of the events on the latest installment of Scandal or Real Housewives within minutes of the credits rolling. The fact that this kind of content is proliferating in the age of DVRs and Hulu, when it’s often as easy to pull up the episode itself on demand as to read someone telling you what happened in it, could be a bit of a head-scratcher.
But as Anne Washburn’s deliciously sly Mr. Burns, a post-electric play posits in Theater Wit’s terrific Chicago premiere, perhaps the recap is just another expression of the human desire to pass down our history. In Mr. Burns’s case, that history is the fifth-season The Simpsons episode “Cape Feare.” In Washburn’s brief first act, we meet a ragtag band of strangers huddling together for safety in the wake of some kind of catastrophic contagion. To pass the time and keep their sanity, the group crowdsources a re-creating of the story, in which a murderous Sideshow Bob pursues Bart even as the Simpsons enter witness protection. (The 1993 ep is a semi-spoof of Martin Scorcese's 1991 remake of the ’60s thriller Cape Fear.)
Act II jumps ahead seven years to find the nation’s power grids have failed, and our survivors have become a traveling troupe, performing a repertory of Simpsons stories. In a post-electric world, TV becomes theater. Washburn finally skips another 75 years to show us that “Cape Feare”—in which Sideshow Bob’s performance of H.M.S. Pinafore is a plot point—has evolved into a very Gilbert & Sullivan-esque kind of operetta itself, performed with a near religious fervor by future generations.
It’s possible this sounds academic or pretentious, but it’s decidedly neither. Interspersed with music by composer Michael Friedman that draws as gleefully from pop culture influences as Washburn’s script, and deftly played out by a crack ensemble of young Chicago actors under Jeremy Wechsler’s direction (and with special commemoration due to Mara Blumenfeld and Mieka Van Der Ploeg’s brilliant, scavenger-style costumes), Mr. Burns is a trippy but persuasive paean to story’s power in our perseverance.
Theater Wit. By Anne Washburn. Score by Michael Friedman. Lyrics by Washburn. Directed by Jeremy Wechsler. With Kelley Abell, Daniel Desmarais, Hannah Gomez, Christina Hall, Andrew Jessop, Leslie Ann Sheppard, Jeff Trainor, Leah Urzendowski. Running time: 2hrs 30mins; two intermissions.