In times of crisis, or rather immediately following times of crisis, we cling to what we remember to sort of center ourselves, and guide the steps of our survival.
In her dark comedy, "Mr. Burns: A Post-Electric Play," now on the stage of Illinois State University's Westhofff Theatre, playwright Anne Washburn, uses the iconic animated sitcom "The Simpsons" as a vehicle to explore what the world would look like following an apocalypse from three distinct perspectives: immediately after ... seven years later ... and, finally, 75 years later.
As the play opens, an isolated group struggles to recall the details from the Simpson's episode "Cape Feare," an hilarious mash-up of both the original film "Cape Fear" starring Robert Mitchum, and the remake, made 30 years later, starring Robert De Niro.
In this episode, Bart's archnemesis Side Show Bob has threatened to throttle the scamp that haunts him. It would be a good idea to watch that episode from the show's fifth season prior to seeing this play, to appreciate its brilliance.
The first act's somewhat lengthy, but comical exposition is interrupted by occasional scares, as the heavily armed, ever-vigilant group steels itself for the new reality before them: their own survival.
The second act shows that folklore has become integral to that survival, and the group, and others like them, have formed theatrical companies consumed with the need to tell their stories.
At this point, the Simpsons story lines are used as a sort of currency, and the competitive companies barter for the rights to plot lines, etc. They are equally dedicated to commercial breaks, which results in a hilarious musical montage of chart hits presented like a late-night infomercial.
Finally, in the third act, set a full generation later, the story of the Simpsons has gone from legend to myth to become a full-blown operetta, in which the villainous Side Show Bob has been replaced by the eccentric billionaire Montgomery Burns, who is surrounded by his evil henchmen, Itchy and Scratchy.
Directed by MFA candidate Kristin L. Schoenback, "Mr. Burns" is a spectacle that runs the gamut, from hilarious to harrowing, hitting all points in between.
Scenic designer and MFA candidate Allison McCarthy creates three unique spaces that swiftly emerge during the two intermissions, enhanced with depth created by MFA candidate Laura Grisondi's dramatic lighting.
The production also features creative, colorful costumes by MFA candidate Amanda Bedker and beautifully performed music directed by Pete Guither.
The talented, hard working ensemble is comprised of Johanna Kerber, Thomas Russell, Sarah Ford, Owen McGee, Megan Compton, Paige Brantly and Everson Pierce, along with a supportive, vocally superb chorus.
While enjoyed by the sold-out crowd on the evening I attended, there were some spots in Washburn's script that went on longer than they needed to, which made the overall production feel a bit uneven.
Still, it's a thought-provoking commentary on pop culture and its ability to connect people.