Before people wrote stories down they recited them. One of the great examples is Homer’s epic poem “The Iliad,” the oldest surviving work of Western literature. Most scholars believe that the rousing tale – which offered its listeners what you might call a foundation, or origin, myth for Greek civilization – was recited long before it was written down.
Fast forward to after nuclear Armageddon to the end of our civilization as we know it. In 2012’s “Mr. Burns, A Post-Electric Play,” a wild ride by Anne Washburn that smashes together pop culture and a lesson in human anthropology, we watch a new origin myth develop.
It’s based on an episode of “The Simpsons” TV show, complete with the characters you know and love: Bart, Lisa, Marge, even Edna Krabappel. And, of course, the famous guy who says “Doh!” Over a period of 82 years, we watch a troupe of actors perform the same episode, watching it shift into a foundation tale with a hint of epic proportions.
Juan L. Guzmán, who directs the Selma Arts Center production in its central San Joaquin Valley premiere, found himself at times shaking his head at the weird and intellectually provocative premise connecting all the way back to the ancient Greeks.
“During rehearsals, I often caught myself thinking, “this is Homer doing Homer,” he says.
To get you up to speed on what is admittedly a complicated and not very well-known show, here’s a rundown. (In an extended interview, Guzmán offers an in-depth discussion of the show.)
The premise: After civilization collapses, a group of survivors – faced with none of the familiar entertainments that cram our lives today – amuses itself by trying to recount the “Cape Feare” episode of “The Simpsons.”
Wait. Which episode was that? It’s a spoof 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.
Moving ahead: In the second act, seven years later, the group has morphed into an acting troupe that roams the countryside performing “Cape Feare” and other “Simpsons” episodes. Mention is made in the script of other acting troupes doing the same thing. The more “Simpsons” episodes a group can perform, the better.
Another wrinkle: Finally, in a third act, the show transforms into a musical. Now 75 years later, we watch a new group of actors perform “Cape Feare,” which has changed in some ways over the years – think what happens in the game Telephone – as a new civilization begins to tell its own foundation story.
The “huh?” factor: That description is a lot for an audience member to take in. But Guzmán says not to stress about the complex plot. “Leave your expectations at the door and watch with an open mind,” he says. “This is really unlike any show I’ve ever been involved with. It’s experimental at times, funny and tragic, smart, and challenging.”
Local music: While the production uses a recorded musical track, it’s of high pedigree. Aaron Wall, the front man for the local band 40 Watt Hype, produced the score. (Music is by Michael Friedman and lyrics by the playwright.)
Do you have to be a “Simpsons” fan to get it? No, Guzmán says. “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,” he says. “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.”
Mr. Burns, A Post-Electric Play
- Through Oct. 1
- www.selmaartscenter.com, 559-891-2238