[Will The Simpsons Save the World?]
This play reminds of a fantasy David Mamet told in one of his books about working in Hollywood. If the apocalypse ever happened, he could make a living telling stories around the campfire, while the studio executives he worked for would starve to death. The power of storytelling to act as a vehicle for personal survival is a central theme of Silo Theatre’s Mr Burns, written by American playwright Ann Washburn and directed by Oliver Driver.
Following the collapse of the United States, a group of survivors (played by Carrie Green, Phoebe Hurst, Ana Chaya Scotney, Olivia Tennet, Quentin Warren, Byron Coll and Joel Tobeck) are drawn together by shared memories of The Simpsons. Drawing on their collective knowledge, they become a theatre troupe specialising in recreations of the famous series for audiences around the post-electric country.
The story takes place in three distinct acts, with the third act taking place 75 years after Act 2. There are no clumsy info dumps to catch the viewer up on what has happened – Washburn trusts the audience to piece everything together through snippets of dialogue. Act One is about a group of people coming together through shared experience. Act Two catches up with the group after they have become a seasoned cast of players, re-telling The Simpsons as live drama.
Act Three is what happens after the original tellers have passed, and their stories have been retold so many times that they have transformed into something completely new, and with a completely different intent. The play is about power of pop culture and what happens to a story over time – how different contexts inform and change its meaning. If you loathe extended copyright laws, the play is a great promotion for public domain.
Somewhere between a thrust stage and theatre in the round, with stadium seating behind the players, the Rangatira’s flexibility as a theatre space is pushed to the extreme. The players and the audience are integrated, as the collapse of the old order is reflected in the way the action is allowed to spill offstage. Even as our ragged band of players pull their show together, the near 270° (?) field of view makes the performers feel small and insignificant. They are still struggling to regain control over their environment and figure out their show.
Daniel Williams (set design) and Rachel Marlow (light design) deserve a lot of credit for making this post-Making-America-Great vision of the future as oppressive as possible. The main set for the first act looks like an abandoned ruin after a war, with grey bric-a-brac. In Act Two, elements of colour are woven into the faux-stage set – imperfect, incomplete. It is like watching a blocking rehearsal.
What really elevates this production is the ensemble assembled by Driver. The actors’ tense, understated performances complement Washburn’s allusive text, conveying the traumas of the past and the present underneath the dialogue. One of the most interesting aspects of the performances is how the cast interact – they seem to have developed a game for their characters based around not rocking the boat. There is a tension running through their interactions in the first few minutes which weighs down each nervous laugh and run-on sentence with a sense of dread. At any moment, it feels like the wrong word or move could trigger an outburst.
Byron Coll adds some notes of pathos to his role as the troupe’s nervy recanter, a man who is barely holding it together by retelling old episodes and jokes to his comrades. Olivia Tennet adds a welcome dose of bolshy professionalism as the group’s defacto producer, keeping tabs on their competition and looking for ways to spruce up the troupe’s act. While she does not get any ‘big’ moments, Ana Chaya Scotney disappears into her role as a country bumpkin who is far more wiley than she initially appears.
And then there is Joel Tobeck, who dominates the play’s third act as a bastardised amalgamation of the title character, Kelsey Grammer’s Sideshow Bob and a Captain Planet-level metaphor for the nuclear fallout blighting this future USA.
Bleak yet oddly hopeful, Mr Burns is a play for our times. Not because of the topicality of its scenario, but in the way it takes our collective obsession with pop culture products like The Simpsons and uses it as a vehicle for rebuilding a sense of community in a world where basic humanity is in short supply.
Mr Burns plays Q until 29th September.