At its core, Mr Burns: A Post-Electric Play is a story about stories. A nuclear holocaust, its survivors and The Simpsons are just the ingredients it needs to show the audience that a world without stories is hardly a world at all.
Mr Burns is certainly an odd show. Running at about two hours plus interval, the show is comprised of just three scenes. The first is in a near-future, post-apocalyptic wasteland, where survivors retell episodes of The Simpsons to distract themselves from the havoc around them. The second is seven years on, as society seems to be holding together by its fingernails while travelling theatre troupes do renditions of old TV shows and commercials. The third is 75 years later where, well, things have gotten weird to say the least.
It’s a balancing act of the extreme. Mr Burns contrasts the abject horror of a violent, paranoid post-apocalyptic world against the escapism that old tales provide their audience. One example is a section of the first scene where Maria (a sympathetic Jacqy Phillips) tells a harrowing story of radiation poisoning that pulls the audience to the depths of this despair and fear, only for Gibson (a charming Mitchell Butel) to break into song, helping us all forget that nastiness.
As it goes on, these long scenes can drag slightly as they bounce between explaining the state of the world and performing old cartoon sketches. Some will find the exposition surrounding the human mechanics of a post-apocalyptic world fascinating (notebooks filled with the names of loved ones’ and a novel concept of culture-as-currency being two curious examples), but others will be waiting impatiently for Simpsons gags.
Each scene’s forward step into the future brings with it a world less familiar to us and it must be said that the massive time leaps in Anne Washburn’s script do make it somewhat difficult to relate with the characters on stage. Don’t get too attached to anyone – the evolution of stories is the main character here, not anyone portrayed by the charismatic cast.
Strong performances from the whole cast do help anchor Mr Burns though, particularly Brent Hill’s quote-loving Matt, Esther Hannaford’s heroic Bart and Mitchell Butel’s slimy Mr Burns, while director Imara Savage knows just the right time to cut the line and send them all spiralling into the storm.
The key consistency in this changing world is the stories and their power of redemption, memory and humour. Without wanting to spoil anything, the bizarre cult-like rock-opera that consumes the final act really drives home the point that if we have stories, we have hope.
Mr Burns: A Post-Electric Play continues at Space Theatre until Saturday, May 13.
Photography: Tony Lewis