What has four fingers, a yellow face, and is totally evil?
Montgomery Burns, of course.
But after twenty-six excellent years as America’s most laughably despicable super villain, Mr. Burns’ character is facing a big shakeup. Harry Shearer, the voice of Mr. Burns (as well as Ned Flanders, Principal Skinner, and others) announced this week that he’s leaving “The Simpsons.”
It’s a sad day for Simpsons’ fans – but the ripples go far beyond TV. Shearer’s portrayal of Mr. Burns was so iconic that it even played a role in the development of a play. It’s called “Mr. Burns, A Post-Electric Play,” and you can find it onstage at Portland Playhouse this spring. Though the play draws its title from “The Simpsons,” the show’s comedic namesake is outweighed by the attention it gives to darker subject matter.
The show starts with a group of friends around a campfire. They’re hanging out, drinking beers, and trying to remember the details of a Simpsons episode called Cape Feare. It’s utterly pedestrian – until an unexpected noise in the background prompts the cast to draw guns and knives.
“The conceit of the play,” says director Brian Weaver, “is that it’s a post-electric world.”
Post-electric and post-apocalyptic. Somehow, and the playwright leaves it to her audience to fill in the blanks, 99% of the human population has died off. With no one left to man the nuclear power plants, they’ve all melted down, making electricity a thing of the past. So humanity – or what’s left of it anyway – is back to good old-fashioned flint and tinder (and not the ‘swipe right’ kind). They make fires, and they do what humans have pretty much always done around the fire: they tell stories.
“It’s a play about how we use stories,” says playwright Anne Washburn, “how we use stories to divert us, how we use stories to comfort us, how we use stories to explain things to us, how we use stories to talk about things which it’s too frightening to speak about directly.”
Washburn, who also happens to be a Reed alum, got the idea for the play a few years back. She was interested in seeing what happens to a pop media story in the wake of an apocalypse. So she crafted a universe where the audience gets to watch that happen.
Act I takes place just a few months after the nuclear meltdown. The language in the script is hyper-realistic. That’s because it’s taken, word for word, from real conversations that she and a bunch of actor friends had trying to remember the details of that episode, Cape Feare.
Act II is set seven years later, just as the world’s storehouse of batteries and food supplies are beginning to run out. The same five friends from around the campfire have become a traveling troupe of actors, performing the Cape Feare episode of “The Simpsons” in exchange for food and resources.
The third and final act of the play takes place 75 years later. At this point, Cape Feare has morphed into an epic, musical drama of Grecian proportions. Performed each year on the anniversary of the apocalypse, the play, says director Brian Weaver, “has become the remembrance of what human life was before the fall, before the apocalypse.” Characters in this fictional, dystopian future have adapted the original Simpsons episode to tell their own story. Marge, Bart, Homer and co. are mere archetypes in a bolder narrative about the struggle to survive against terrible odds.
This three-act play is a massive undertaking: three disparate time periods linked together only by the evolving Cape Feare story, three acts that are completely stylistically different for actors and designers alike. As if that weren’t enough, Portland Playhouse upped the ante by opting to perform the piece across three different stages. Weaver says the ambulatory performance was an opportunity both to expand on the production of the play itself, and to showcase the ins and outs of the building.
For the first five years at 602 NE Prescott, Portland Playhouse was only one of three or four organizations in the building. “Only last year did we sign a lease, a long-term lease, to have the full building including the outside property,” Weaver explains.
That expansion has taken some getting used to – not least of all for the neighbors. In preparation for this production, Weaver had some favors to ask.
“We went around with a letter that said, we’re doing a play, like we do – this one’s going to be a little different. Number one, there’s going to be gunshots. Number two, there’s going to be people sneaking around the outside of the building with guns. Number three, it’s starting late, and so it’s not going to get out until 11 at night. And finally, we’re doing 35 minutes of it outside, so could you please not mow your grass during those 35 minutes.”
The neighbors, Weaver says, could be convinced to cooperate – but only with bribes of beer and cookies.
“Everyone is like yeah, come by with cookies every week and we can talk!”
Unfortunately beer and cookies can’t smooth over all of the play’s challenges. Portland Playhouse has had to figure out a way to keep the audience warm and dry while they’re seated outside — expect ponchos, there. And they’ve faced huge design trials in figuring out how to make the play look believably post-apocalyptic.
It’s been a wildly demanding project for the actors, too. They’ve had to learn how to sing and even how to play instruments like piano and guitar. That part was a bit easier for Brian Adrian Koch, whose ambitions as an actor have thus far come second to his career as a musician with Portland quintet Blitzen Trapper. Koch plays a character called Matt, as well as Homer, Mr. Burns, and the villainous Sideshow Bob.
Koch’s a whiz with impressions, and he says he has always had a knack for memorizing long passages from movies. He was excited to act in an apocalyptic future scenario where those sorts of skills could keep a person alive. In a real-world apocalypse, he’s not so sure about his chances.
“I just assume that I’m going to be apocalypse fodder for someone else,” he says. “If it actually goes down, I mean, I’m genetically… weak. I’m going down right away. I’m okay with that.”
It might sound morbid, but those kinds of thoughts are fresh on the minds of everyone who’s been working on the play. Jennifer Rowe, who plays a character named Jenny as well as Marge Simpson, says it has even changed the way she thinks about going to the grocery store.
“I look around and I go ‘oh my gosh – there’s so much stuff that I could survive with!’ and I don’t know how long that would take me to go through all this stuff,” she says. “But there – even post electrically, for a little while we could make it through.”
Not everyone’s so optimistic. Nevertheless, the show must go on - and go on, it has. The play has gotten rave reviews from “Vulture” and the “New York Times,” and it was even nominated for a 2014 Drama League Award. In fact, it’s been getting so much attention, that in a fitting referential twist “The Simpsons” actually referenced it in a recent episode.
How’s that for a shout out?
”Mr. Burns, A Post Electric Play,” opens this weekend and runs through June 7th.