Even as civilization crumbles, there's power and comfort in storytelling.
So, as the play "Mr. Burns, a post-electric play" begins, it's the near future and a group of survivors of an apocalyptic event has gathered in the woods. As they huddle over a warming barrel, they pass the time by sharing notes about people who are dead or missing — and also by trying to remember the plot details of "Cape Feare," a classic episode of "The Simpsons."
Seven years later, the ragtag bunch has morphed into a traveling theater troupe, moving from town to town to perform episodes of "The Simpsons," complete with commercials and medleys of popular songs to audiences who hunger to connect, if only briefly, to their lives before apocalypse. And 75 years later, the story has morphed into something else — a performance rife with ritual and mythological meaning, but still with a strong "Simpsons" foundation.
That's the setup for Anne Washburn's provocative "Mr. Burns," which opens Friday night at Linn-Benton Community College.
The dark (sometimes very dark) comedy debuted in Washington, D.C. in 2012 and then moved to New York, where it drew mixed reviews (although the The New York Times raved about it) and sellout crowds. Pat Kight, who's directing the mid-valley production, first got wind of the show when the daughter of a college acquaintance became involved with the original production. "It sounded really intriguing," Kight said.
Then Kight saw a production of the show last year at Portland Center Stage, and loved it: "It was absolutely terrific," she said. "I like offbeat plays. I like newer plays," and "Mr. Burns" qualifies on both counts. "I like doing shows that people haven't seen before."
Kight wanted to figure out some way to bring the show to the mid-valley, and caught a break: The LBCC fine arts faculty has been searching for ways to bring more community productions onto the stage at the Russell Tripp Performance Center. Kight made the pitch, and LBCC gave the green light.
Kight quickly assembled a nine-person cast, recruited a trio of musicians (the play features a considerable amount of music, and most of the third act is sung) and started bringing the show to life. "I called in all my cards," she said.
Rehearsals have had to take into account previously scheduled summer vacations, but she said the production has started to click over the last couple of weeks. "They've been working so hard," she said of her cast and crew. "They're really tight and together on this."
The show, and especially its third act, provided challenges for costume designer Lorraine Sorensen, who had to craft elaborate costumes and masks that conceivably could have been created by people with no access to electricity or the other niceties of civilization.
It's not necessary to have a deep knowledge of "The Simpsons" or the "Cape Feare" episode to follow the play, although fans will enjoy a number of references to both — and, yes, if you pay attention, there's a reference to the famous rake gag. (Kight notes that the play is not suitable for children, with its mature themes, profanity, moments of violence and three-hour running time.)
Washburn originally was interested in the idea of what would happen if you took a TV show and pushed it past an apocalyptic event (the event itself is not specified in the play). She considered shows such as "MASH," "Friends" and "Cheers" before settling on "The Simpsons."
What endures, Washburn suggests, is the human urge to tell stories and to reshape them to fit the needs of the people who are hearing them.
It's a theme that Kight finds compelling: "I really like the way (the play) talks about story as really essential to the human condition." And by the time "Mr. Burns" reaches its third act, "somehow this story has become part of cultural mythology, telling the story of the fall and rebirth of humanity. ... I liked the idea that our stories are what makes us human."