The play begins with Matt, Maria, and Jenny sitting around a fireplace. Another woman, Colleen is huddled to the side. Around the fireplace, they attempt to piece together an episode of The Simpsons- “Cape Feare,” in which Sideshow Bob is released from prison and tries to murder Bart. Matt leads the group through the opening sequence in which Lisa receives a letter from her pen pal, and Bart a death threat. Matt recalls the conception of the episode from movie to remake to episode. When Colleen laughs at a joke, the group turns toward her and continues their discussion when she retreats into herself. A small noise startles the group, they pull out their weapons and assess the threat. Gibson comes out of the trees. The group questions him to decide whether he can be trusted. Gibson reveals that he has traveled from Massachusetts and witnessed the results of the recent nuclear apocalypse. This includes the deaths of millions, destroyed cities, and road blockages. They all share a list of names of people they are looking for across the country, which people record in notebooks. Maria shares that she met a man who planned to stop the meltdown of Oyster Creek power plant, but ultimately gave up out of fear. In a lull, Gibson picks up with a quote from “Cape Feare” initially throwing the group off guard. The first act ends as the group continues to share highlights from the episode.
Act Two takes place 7 years later. The group has now started a touring theatre company that performs episodes of The Simpsons. Two actors, Quincy and Gibson, perform a commercial, a highlight of their company’s performances. The rehearsal, led by Colleen, is stopped repeatedly to fix a visible chord, correct lines, and finally to move on. After arguing about what needs more work (the episode, the commercials, or the transitions), they pick up in the episode when an FBI Agent tries to teach Homer to respond to his Witness Protection name. They transition into the same commercial. Offstage something breaks. Sam emerges from offstage with a mirror to insert into the onstage TV case, increasing the lighting effect. Rehearsal resumes. After finishing the commercial, the group argues about small revisions, like what wine sounds better. Maria begins a discussion about where all of Diet Cokes have gone since the nuclear apocalypse. From this emerges a discussion about competing theatre companies and trading the rights to perform certain episodes. Gibson is overcome with fear when he cannot remember agreeing to buy “Heretic Homer,” believing his brain has been damaged from radiation. Sam calms him with an embrace. Gibson suggests discussing the booth because the company needs a better way to buy lines for their shows. Colleen steers the group back to rehearsing, where they pick up with “Chart Hits,” a performance of popular music from the past. The episode resumes, but is interrupted when people walk into the theatre. Colleen demands they leave. Gibson tells them to take what they want from their wagon, but when Maria brings the keys, she is shot. The group pulls out their weapons and several other characters are shot as the lights blackout.
Act Three begins 75 years later. A chorus sings about a disaster that destroys Springfield, killing all of the town except for The Simpsons. Enda Krabappel, leader of the chorus, reads a list of the deceased from Jenny’s notebook from Act One. The Simpsons family takes the stage on a boat in Terror River. The family sings a song of warning for the oncoming storm and of remembrance for the world that was. They go inside of the boat. Mr. Burns, a mutated version of Sideshow Bob, climbs onto the boat with Itchy and Scratchy, who retrieve the family from inside. Burns threatens to kill Bart and the family. Bart suggests that killing his family wouldn’t upset him, so he should only kill Bart, though Burns does not fall for this trick. The family proclaims that they are united. Burns kills Homer, Marge, Lisa, and Maggie. Bart sings goodbye to the world, only to be joined by the ghosts of his family, encouraging him. The boat hits rapids and chaos breaks loose into a sword fight. Burns is thrown onto Bart’s sword. Burns, Itchy, and Scratchy slip into the river. The chorus and Bart end the performance, promising to continue living. As the actors bow, a curtain reveals Mr. Burns powering the theatre’s lights on a treadmill.
Anne Washburn is a graduate of Reed College and New York University (MFA.) Her plays include 10 Out of 12, Mr. Burns, a Post-Electric Play, A Devil at Noon, and Orestes. Her work displays themes of meta-theatre, Greek theatre, the collapse of civilization, storytelling, and dark comedy. Mr. Burns was nominated for a Drama League Award. She has been awarded Guggenheim, NYFA, and Time Warner fellowships, the Whiting Award, PEN/Laura Pels Award, and Herb Alpert Award. She was a Susan Smith Blackburn finalist and received residencies at MacDowell and Yaddo. She is a member of 13P and an alumna of New Dramatists.
Michael Friedman graduated from Harvard, where he studied history and literature. Friedman is a composer and lyricist known for his musical Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, which opened on Broadway in 2010. His other works include Saved, In The Bubble, The Brand New Kid, God’s Ear, and The Blue Demon. Friedman is a founding Associate Artist of The Civilians.
Washburn developed Mr. Burns with a New York based group called The Civilians. She began by bringing actors together to record spoken English. She asked the actors- Matt Maher, Maria Dizzie, and Jenyn Morris to choose an episode of The Simpsons and retell the story as best as they could remember it. In the first telling, Maher supplied most of the content. They then told the story for a second time. In the third and final round, new actors joined the room. She used these iterations to create the first act, most of it word for word from the session.
She then wrote the rest of the script, including the third act, which she intended to be an extravagant musical from the beginning of the process- despite never writing a musical. She worked with Michael Friedman to put music to her words, finding this the most difficult part of the process. The play opened at Woolly Mammoth in New York and transferred Off-Broadway to Playwrights Horizon. Between these productions she made major adjustments to the script.
Washburn says that she also considered using Friends and Cheers, but ultimately chose The Simpsons because of its archetypal characters and encompassment of American culture and history.
The Civilians is a company that creates new theater from creative investigations into the most vital questions of the present. Through a number of artistic programs, The Civilians advances theater as an engine of artistic innovation and strengthens the connections between theater and society.
Anne Washburn wrote Mr. Burns in response to 9/11. Having lived in New York when the attacks happened, she lived with paranoia, which has fed her interest in the apocalypse. Washburn says, “I don’t think I thought about this directly when I was writing that scene but I was in New York on 9/11, and was fascinated by the group-mind which followed the event. After the first three days, during which no one thought about anything else, or spoke of anything else, there was an etiquette which evolved, spontaneously, and which everyone followed, perfectly, about how much we all spoke of the event, how much we talked about our own lives; the proportions were constantly evolving but as I remember it, it was a few weeks before people started to deviate from it. People were desperate to seize on an order, and a way of doing things. I think I was also thinking of the fliers which went up, with the names and photos of the missing—for the first day or so they seemed like a practical idea, and they proliferated like mad. After the first day they continued to go up, but they felt like an increasingly desperate gesture, and like memorials, rather than a real way to find someone.”
In this play, she was also searching to answer what pieces of culture would live on in this scenario. She theorized that in the wake of tragedy, people won’t turn to Shakespeare or Dickens, but the comedies that grew with us. Though she considered many shows like Friends and Cheers, she landed on The Simpsons for its all-encompassing nature of culture. The Simpsons touches on politics, current events, popular culture, etc. Washburn believes it fully documents American culture.
AUDIENCE & CRITICAL RESPONSE
Upon its opening at Woolly Mammoth and Playwrights Horizon, Mr. Burns received mixed reviews. Though Ben Brantley’s New York Times review was glowing, some critics disagreed. However, shows sold out enough to extend the run. Generally, the play has been considered a success.
Beginning with the positives, critics who enjoyed the show find its premise highly engaging and thought provoking. They are pulled into the challenge of piecing together plots and spotting the differences in storytelling. Critics enjoyed the themes of the play including the criticism of capitalism, praise of theatre, storytelling that changes for the needs of the people, etc. All reviews enjoyed Michael Freeman’s score. Of the 17 productions that I researched, only one used a different composer. On the other hand, critics found that the play was far too long and that the storyline was pretentious and lacking cohesion as well as a thesis. Several reviewers accused Washburn of not understanding what she was writing about and identified the workshop development of the play as the culprit of its flaws.
After opening in New York, tickets for Mr. Burns were hard to come by, as word of mouth was very positive. Many reviews pondered the level of audience enjoyment relative to the amount of Simpsons knowledge. Generally, they agreed that those who would get the most out of the production would be familiar with the show and “Cape Feare.” However, they found that people with little Simpsons knowledge could still enjoy the production, though they would miss jokes and likely have to think a little harder. They did suggest that people interested in the show do some homework before attending. Many productions had audiences sit onstage for the first act and move for the second and third, but none stated whether this was effective or not. At the Almeida Theatre, live fire was used in the campfire and candles, but the critic found this highly ineffective because the space became overheated.