It has become so easy today to just turn to your computer or your smartphone and settle the argument about what year Say Anything came out? What did Bette Davis actually sound like? Should we watch all the episodes of the West Wing right now? When did I last hear from you?** In an instant our queries can be answered and our desires can be met. Immediate relief from any anxiety or wanting.
Written by Anne Washburn and directed by Steve Cosson, I saw Mr. Burns last year in D.C. and loved it. But in revisiting it, I was struck by the deeper resonance the piece had for me and the intellectual satisfaction I got from this play. Like time-lapse photography, Mr Burns speeds up the evolution of language, expression, entertainment, and communication, and we are given a unique perspective that allows us to trace that evolution. Life is a literal pastiche of the things that have come before.
In Act I, a group of strangers have gathered around a campfire. Mid-story we arrive to hear the group trying to remember an episode of The Simpsons. Matt (Matthew Maher) is leading the charge as others weigh in on the bits they recall. A memory of a musical tune. A recollection of a shot sequence. A fair impression of Kelsey Grammer doing Sideshow Bob. They are trying to remember the Cape Feare episode, which is an homage to the film Cape Fear and the remake of that film but references Gilbert and Sullivan, Night of the Hunter and other bits of popular culture.
When a new stranger appears, Gibson (Gibson Frazier), the seriousness of the situation becomes more apparent. There has been some sort of nuclear meltdown and plague that has felled many. With nothing more than what they can carry and what they can forage, these are some of the survivors. And their new ritual begins. Querying Gibson as the newest arrival, each person asks about family members or friends and hopes he will find their name in his book. They each return the favor. Each person looks to their handwritten books where they have written down the people they have come into contact with. Each has their own catalog of survivors--returning to a world of pen and paper and information is passed person to person.
Act II pushes the story ahead seven years and from the confusion of the unknown, the campfire strangers have stuck together and have acquired some newcomers. They have become a performance troupe. These troupes (there are many rival performing companies) recreate episodes of television (including several of The Simpsons) and commercials for a live audience. The purpose of this performance is more than entertainment. The survivors are trying to recreate flavors, sensations, and memories for things that no longer exist--the smell of bath salts, the taste of wine. They are committed to keeping alive that connection to the world that is gone now. In a post-apocalyptic world, reminding each other of a collective humanity is a necessity. The forgetting would be fatal. What has transpired in the past seven years is unclear but the threat now comes from other people. These performances are a response to the desperation and uncertainty in this new world order.
Act III pushes the story another 80 years into the future from there and we are watching a musical-operatic version of the recreation of Cape Feare with music by Michael Friedman. Like a sophisticated visual and aural game of "telephone," some of the bits of Cape Feare that the original survivors remembered live on a generation or two into the future. But like a game of telephone, passing information human to human over decades is imperfect and the final result is far afield from the original. These future performers use familiar fragments of the past--lines, catch-phrases, bits of music--but they are re-contextualized. As viewers from the present, peering through a strange looking-glass to an unfamiliar future, we can hear strands of You're a Mean One, Mr. Grinch being sung but in this discombobulated world of tomorrow it is about Mr. Burns instead. Now Cape Feare has become a celebratory allegory for survival.
From the moment you enter the theater, and covers of famous songs are playing, the world that Washburn, Cosson, and Friedman have created is about taking the quotidian and the popular and re-rendering it so you look at the world differently. The Simpsons, as a base language and vocabulary for the story, makes a lot of sense. First, it is accessible and you've probably absorbed enough knowledge about The Simpsons simply through cultural osmosis. Second, in the world of Mr. Burns which has suffered a nuclear meltdown, here is a piece of the pop culture past that often referenced nuclear energy and would likely have had more resonance as time moved on. Third, The Simpsons has always been a sponge for bits of popular culture and so it is itself already a place where references to other works get repurposed and therefore adds another meta layer to an already meta concept.
The play relies on essentially the same source material in three totally different contexts. Like theatrical archaeologists, we know what the objects are, but our understanding of their use, their purpose, and their meaning evolves as we understand the cultures they are borne out of.
The glorious part of this show is that despite everything--being at the precipice of the end of civilization--storytelling survives. Whether around a campfire to stave off fear and dread, or in a ramshackle warehouse to provide emotional solace and comfort to a world that is starting to forget itself, or on a "stage" framed by a television screen celebrating the endurance of humanity that doubted its own survival, the act of performing live for an audience continues. That audience's wants and needs evolve. The work evolves with them. But the act of storytelling remains a necessary and critical part of our humanity.
I was reminded of Tom Stoppard's Arcadia. As Thomasina Coverly worries about the lost plays of Sophocles and Aeschylus destroyed in the Great Library of Alexandria, her tutor comforts her.
"You should no more grieve for the rest than for a buckle lost from your first shoe...We shed as we pick up, like travelers who must carry everything in their arms, and what we let fall will be picked up by those behind. The procession is very long and life is very short. We die on the march. But there is nothing outside the march so nothing can be lost to it. The missing plays of Sophocles will turn up piece by piece, or be written again in another language."
And so here Washburn and Cosson take the pieces lost on the march and re-write the plays of Sophocles...or well...Matt Groening and Co. Those behind pick up the pieces and though the language may have changed, the objects are not lost. But seeing how the meaning of those objects changes through times is the illuminating brilliance of the play. It is a text made up of pop cultural items we know and take for granted and we watch as those things we "know" are woven into an entirely new unfamiliar tapestry.
Originally I found Act III the hardest to reconcile and after this second viewing suddenly the entire work fit together for me. When I first saw the play in D.C., I got really attached to the Act I and II characters and the movement away from them in Act III was really jarring for me. Because I was wrapped up in the emotional state of the characters, I failed to recognize some of the structural and thematic work at play until my second viewing. In addition, lost in the New York production was some of the levity of the original in D.C. I felt the balance between comedy and drama was more acute there. Here, it started a bit heavier and Act III's Wagnerian excess felt more like the emotional catharsis it was always meant to be. I wish there could have been more of a balance of comedy and still delivering a powerful release at the end. Act III was not just a society performing it's survival tale and telling a story. It was a celebrating its origin myth and calling everyone to honor and remember it--the new Independence Day (movie or event, take your pick)--and this time I really felt that.
Through theater, Washburn, Cosson, and Friedman, give us a chance to piece together for ourselves the strands of music, language, communication, and connection that make us human and give us meaning. I feel like shows that ask the audience to step up and pay attention in this way are a rare delight.
*I am always reminded of an interview with Martin Scorsese talking about films he remembered when he was a film student. His recollection of the films that inspired him were just that--a recollection rendered through his memory. When he went to make his own movies all he could rely on were the memories of the films that came before because they were not accessible for him to view again. Whereas my generation of film student could, for better or worse, just run out to a video store and rewatch movies we wanted to. Memory had little to do with it. And I think in some ways direct referencing is a lot less interesting than being influenced and inspired by films filtered through your personal perspective. The excitement comes from how you reinterpret, repurpose, recontextualize, and change what it was that inspired you. Shot-for-shot remakes are such a waste of imagination.
**The experimental work, I Wish I Was Lonely, asked fascinating questions about how this instant connection could be harming us emotionally. I've had this show on my mind since I saw it in August and I feel like I keep bringing it up to anyone who will listen. It probes our feelings of connection in unexpected ways. It may pop up on tour in the UK so keep an eye out for it.