Stories, like viruses, are transmissible. In the brain, in the blood, they mutate and change. Tragedies become comedies; dramas become myths. And in Anne Washburn’s visionary and wacky “Mr. Burns, a post-electric play”, revived by the Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festivalan episode of “The Simpsons” becomes an opera, and that opera becomes a way for a post-apocalyptic society to come to terms with all that it has lost.
After a devastating contagion and concurrent nuclear meltdowns, America’s population fell to maybe a million, maybe half. In the first act, which takes place in the very near future, somewhere in the northeast, a few survivors have gathered around what should be a campfire (didn’t the fire marshal not allowed?) to tell stories. Or like that night, a particular story. Together, they reenact the events and jokes of “Cape Feare”, an episode of season 5 of “The Simpsons”.
Reminiscent of Sideshow Bob’s flourishes and Homer’s doofus behavior connects them to a lost world in a way that feels bearable. True memories are too painful. Memories of a TV show – from a time when TVs stopped working – are what they can handle. In the second act, these scattered memories were refashioned in review. The third act, set decades later and entirely sung, with music by composer Michael Friedman, further transmutes them.
“Mr. Burns” debuted in May 2012 at the Woolly Mammoth Theater in Washington, then moved to Playwrights Horizons. 9/11 was more present in cultural memory a decade ago. A passage includes a haunting reference to the towers twins of light. But with the pandemic, we have a new cataclysm to absorb, which makes “Mr. Burns,” directed by festival artistic director Davis McCallum, a timely selection. new disaster? Will this piece still seem relevant? Yes. Probably. Ugh.) In its invention, its ruthless composure, its questioning of why and how we use storytelling, it has no aged.
In some ways, the festival, with its sandy ground and flippant tent, provides an ideal location. The opening at the back of the tent overlooks century-old trees. Even considering the mowed lawn – a concession to picnickers and ticks – it suggests what the landscape might look like if nature returned. (If the view had shown the recently decommissioned Indian Point Nuclear Generating Station, located just down the Hudson, it might have been even more evocative.) sometimes struggle to make the action visible to all, especially in the act final.
The acting is uneven here, the beats sometimes off-kilter, although festival veteran Sean McNall has a terrific turn as a newcomer in the first act, and Merritt Janson, a welcome Off-Broadway presence, makes a sharp and specific work as an actor. -manager in the second. Zachary Fine, who operates very discreetly in the first two acts, triumphs in the third. During this act, a choir member hit a drum directly in my ear, which I could have done without.
And yet, if you’re around and can reserve a seat away from that drum, you should see “Mr. Burn. Here’s why: It seems to me that no new artwork — theater, television, film, fiction — produced in recent years has truly represented the pandemic, at least as I experienced it. Sometimes the more they were on the nose (“Station Eleven”, for example), the more distant they felt.
“Mr. Burns” doesn’t capture it exactly either, but it captures something else. broadcasts that have made the world regular and knowable.” Mr. Burns” explores the ways we use stories, even seemingly irrelevant stories, to give meaning to our lives. “Mr. Burns” is a play about where we find comfort and it’s also, scarier, about the limits of that comfort, about how reality can creep in even before the credits roll.
Reality has sometimes imposed itself, even here, outside the city, outside. The show’s opening had been delayed due to coronavirus cases among the cast. Spectators closest to the actors were asked to wear masks; most did. Still, we might get lost for a moment, imagining how a society like ours could handle a disaster much worse than this, how we might or might not get out of it. Watching this is pleasant, painful, mysterious and strange. Or to put it another way: D’Oh.
Mr. Burns, a post-electric piece
Through September 17 at the Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival, Garrison, NY; hvshakespeare.org. Duration: 2h30.