The Selma Arts Center isn’t content just to dish up classics and big Broadway hits. Its new show “Mr. Burns, A Post-Electric Play,” opening Friday, Sept. 16, is an intellectually stimulating 2012 offering that offers a mind-blowing, post-apocalyptic twist on “The Simpsons” TV show.
In the print edition of Friday’s Seven section, I offer a preview of the show in easily digestible capsule form. (In a nutshell: The play takes place after nuclear armageddon when a group of survivors try to remember the “Cape Feare” episode of “The Simpsons,” then progress to performing it throughout the coming years as it turns into a sort of foundation myth for the new society that is forming.)
In the following extended interview, director Juan L. Guzman and I get deeper.
Q: A plot point of the play is that survivors are trying to reconstruct an episode of “The Simpsons” titled “Cape Feare.” For those of us who are less than “Simpsons” buffs, give us a brief rundown of that episode. Do the characters in the play come close to replicating it, or do they make some errors?
A: The episode is a spoof of the 1991 Robert DeNiro film, itself a remake of the 1962 original. In the episode, Bart is receiving death threats from an unknown source that turns out to be Sideshow Bob, a sidekick to Krusty the Clown. In an effort to escape from Bob, the Simpsons are forced into the Witness Protection Program, are given a new name and identity, and are moved to a houseboat on Terror Lake. They soon discover that they are not as safe as they thought when Bob makes his way onto the houseboat in an effort to capture the Simpsons and kill Bart. Hilarity, naturally, ensues.
We see the characters in this play work with the same episode in all three acts of the play, which spans a total of 82 years. Throughout the show, they get a lot of the episode right, but much like a game of “Telephone,” some elements morph or are tweaked or forgotten over time, and the audience will be able to trace some of those differences throughout the performance. Sometimes the error is as small as an erroneous line, at other times it’s as significant as replacing one character with another. Always, there’s an opportunity to make sense of the mistake.
Q: As the play progresses, “Simpsons” episodes become very important to a group’s survival, with the ability to perform complete episodes considered a form of “currency.” The playwright is a little sketchy on this. What do you think the backstory is?
A: Yes, the writer is really vague about this, mostly showing an interesting power structure that develops around the episodes and a group’s ability to perform accurate shows. There’s a great line spoken by one of the characters during a debate about how realistic the episodes should get. “Meaning is everywhere,” she says, “We get meaning for free, whether we like it or not. Meaningless Entertainment, on the other hand, is actually really hard.”
Imagine this group seven years prior to the act, basically living in the society we live in today, with all the amenities and luxuries that provide meaningless entertainment for us. Without electricity, without our devices, what else would we have to turn to? Performing these episodes well ensures their survival; audiences will keep coming back, some may remember a line and strengthen their show. Additionally, these actors contextualize the episodes they perform by performing commercials and musical vignettes between their scenes. From Diet Cokes to chicken sandwiches, in an age without corporations they are doing their best to sell that memory of what life was like. In one note, the playwright calls this “reality porn.”
Q: I’m intrigued by the theme of storytelling in the show. It’s as if civilization is blasted back to the Iron Age and is trying to reestablish a storytelling tradition but without modern tools. Again, this is probably reading more backstory into the play than the playwright provides, but does the acting troupe write their reconstructed “Simpsons” episodes down, skipping what you might consider the Homer-slash-”Iliad” step of a purely oral history tradition? Way too deep here, probably, but is it just a coincidence that a primary character in “The Simpsons” is named Homer?
A: I don’t think that’s going way too deep at all. During rehearsals, I often caught myself thinking, “this is Homer doing Homer.” It’s interesting, characters in the play do keep a written account during the show, names of people they are searching for, symptoms of sickness related to the nuclear disaster, the transactions in purchasing or obtaining new lines, but we never see them write the actual episode down, no written record of a complete show as far as the audience knows.
We know that literature is something that can be lost—some of Homer’s own, even. What makes The Simpsons such an ideal show to work with (aside from its universal themes and wide audience) is that it references so many artifacts that represent who we are as a civilization. In the play itself, other episodes of The Simpsons are mentioned, including the following titles: “Much Apu About Nothing,” “A Streetcar Named Marge,” “Heart of Bartness.” In performing these episodes, the society is able to keep alive Shakespeare, Williams, and Conrad. By saving this series, this new society secures pieces of great art from the civilization that came before it.
Q: Another intriguing thing: This new civilization decides not to base its origins/creation myth on religious works but a secular TV show. Thoughts?
A: I think the secular is more popular today than ever and that pop culture values the secular over the religious. I wonder how many Americans have a religious image hanging in their home versus the households that have a pop culture image hanging in their home, whether it a music group or an actor, or even Homer Simpson. I think Washburn is clearly showing us how the values of our society today might shape our world of tomorrow.
Q: The show turns into a musical in the third act. Why do you think the playwright did this?
A: Music has long been its own form of communication, and I believe that music will be there still in the apocalypse. The audience will hear music in each of the acts in the show, but all of act three is performed in a musical operetta style.
Music is a universal language that is able to make a person feel emotions. The group we meet in act two, for example, doesn’t want to feel emotions anymore. When they perform medleys that includes songs by Britney Spears, Ricky Martin, Eminem, and others, it’s not because they’re fans necessarily, it’s because of the story the songs tell, it’s about the emotion the lyrics are charged with. It’s an opportunity for the group to explore sentiment without losing their minds.
Q: If your knowledge of “The Simpsons” is perfunctory, is it good to bone up on the basic concepts and characters before seeing the show? Or is that necessary?
A: You don’t have to be a fan of the show or even know its basic concepts before watching this play to understand it. Yes, there are obscure references from the show peppered throughout the play, but an audience member won’t miss anything if they don’t know the cartoon. I think people will be surprised to find that it isn’t so much about “The Simpsons” as it is about the culture that has watched them for twenty-eight years.
Q: This show comes to Selma directly after “Heathers,” which was also something of a cutting-edge show. Did the company deliberately decide on this order?
A: We had a lot of fun bringing “Heathers” to the Selma Arts Center. As producers, Nicolette Andersen and I felt it was a story that might seem superficial on the surface but we knew that it offered something original in terms of discussing themes we ordinarily keep in the shadows. When we plan our season, we are ultimately looking for good stories; stories that will challenge our audiences as well as our actors.
Of course, this means striking a balance for our patrons and their families. And so, you see a shows like “Shrek” and “Brighton Beach Memoirs” in the same year. As much as we love the classics and enjoy producing them, we are also intrigued by new material and we like taking risks. We want to be bold about the projects we invest in, and this script (like “Heathers”) offered us that opportunity.
Q: Some plays spell out things pretty plainly for the audience. This one leaves a lot of unanswered questions. Do you have any tips for the best way to watch a show such as this?
A: Leave your expectations and the door and watch with an open mind. This is really unlike any show I’ve ever been involved with. It’s experimental at times, funny and tragic, smart, and challenging. Read the program notes and trust the playwright and actors. Of course, come watch it with a friend so you have someone to talk about it with on the ride home.
Q: Anything else you’d like to say?
A: This show has never been done in the Central Valley and has only been performed a few times in California since it was published. We are so excited to bring this production home and really want people to experience it. We are also happy to be hosting a student night on Thursday, September 22. Students who present a student ID only pay $10 for a ticket and are invited to stay for a talk-back with the actors immediately following the performance.
Mr. Burns, A Post-Electric Play
- Sept. 16-Oct. 1
- www.selmaartscenter.com, 559-891-2238