Line: “…we take exception to urine-soaked hell-hole- we prefer pee-soaked stink-hole” and Sideshow Bob is like “cheerfully withdrawn.”
This is my favorite line from “Cape Feare,” and I couldn’t be happier that it’s included in this play. I think Sideshow Bob’s use of language is the best thing about the episode. The way he speaks, and Lisa as well, is hysterical, particularly compared with his primary motivations. It’s also a completely ridiculous case of censorship for a show about killing a young boy.
Staging Moment: The reveal of the treadmill
There’s something so wonderful about revealing this trick to the audience, who (hopefully) is curious about the electricity being utilizes. It allows the audience to see how theatre is made, something that has been limited in western theatre. In the play, they utilize non-western theatre making concepts, such as writing the scripts with their audiences. This allows a glimpse into the world of the play for our audience.
Line: “Meaning is everywhere. We get Meaning for free, whether we like it or not. Meaningless Entertainment, on the other hand, is actually really hard.”
This line summarizes the main point of this play. As you’ll read in my negatives section, the play lacks depth and a cohesive story, but that’s not the point of the play. The point is entertainment and finding solace in laughing together. It’s about the comfort that theatre provides. Washburn wasn’t seeking to create a play with deep meaning, she wanted to write a play that showed the value of theatre as entertainment and to prove its importance in the landscape of history and humanity.
Staging Moment: Gibson sings "Three Little Maids"
This is the moment in which Gibson is officially accepted by the group and asked to provide what he can for them. As Washburn notes, the group would never have wanted to listen to this performance in the past, but in this world, it is a treat. This moment reveals the idea of theatre bringing us together and accepting outsiders that the play demonstrates throughout.
The lack of focus on the events of the apocalypse leads to a greater depth of characters as we examine their levels of participation and interactions with each other. Though the characters from the first act are no longer in the third, we still watch their development from act one to two. Furthermore, Washburn plays with characters that we already know (from The Simpsons) losing their development from the first to third act.
“As characters take shape they do so as individuals, not as cartoon characters, there is no trace of voice or gesture from the original series.”
Each Act’s World
In Act One, the characters are collecting up the broken pieces of their world. They are trying to learn how to survive and understand what happened. They also have the freshest, most accurate memories of The Simpsons. In act two, Washburn establishes the way the new world works economically and socially. There are now multiple theaters that have a system for buying episodes. They also work with the community to remember episodes and write scripts because the memories of the episodes are fading and the authenticity matters less. In Act Three, we do not get to see beyond the play, but you can infer things about the society. The first is that there is an unhealthy devotion to remembering the apocalypse. After 75 years, the original survivors are gone and it’s likely that most of these people did not experience it first hand, but they still recount the event. Assuming that this show is performed regularly, this means that they memorialize the apocalypse regularly as well. In terms of performance, The Simpsons characters have essentially been lost and all that is left is the imagery and small fragments of what may have been remembered about their characters’ personalities- Ned was religious, Moe was a bartender, Willy has a rake. In the third act, the plot is highly skewed. It begins with a sort of memorial to the apocalypse, The Simpsons escape, and then Mr. Burns comes to kill Bart, but there is no build up to the murder plot.
This play, focused on environmentalism, human connection, and the evolution of storytelling, is certainly entertaining, but is it gripping? It’s not. The moments of tension in the show are cut short and never developed because of the act structure. Act One is wonderfully tense because of Gibson’s arrival and trying to understand what happened to the world. Act Two is less gripping because it is mostly bickering until the gunmen arrive. All of this build up is useless because there is actually no tension in the Act Three. Because we have been told about the episode, because people in the audience have probably seen it, because we know Bart won’t die, there is nothing driving the question, “What’s going to happen next?” or even “What’s happening?”
Lack of musical direction
Something that will be difficult is that Washburn gives some instruction on music, but not much. We will have to make a lot decisions based on her ideas of what something should sound like and hope that we capture what it is that she is intending. For instance, she asks for eerie background and a medley of popular hits, which requires someone who can assemble this music, unless we choose to buy the original score.
Technical concerns: There are, naturally, many technical requirements that could cause problems. The most obvious is non-electrical light. She also asks for a display screen (which sounds like a projection to me) to indicate the new time period. In the Third Act, she asks for a proscenium arch, implying that there wasn’t supposed to be one before then. She asks for the boat to enter rapids and a car onstage as well. The technical elements of the show will surely be an interesting puzzle to solve.
What is the approximate timeline of the nuclear apocalypse? The best indications of time that we have are based on the length of time that the characters were traveling. The longest amount of travel time is 11 weeks. Matt’s list also includes an 8-month old baby. In order for him to know the age of the child, he had to be present for or made aware of the birth. This means that the apocalypse couldn’t have started more than 8 months ago. Jenny also says that the plants had “weeks and weeks to plan for this.”
Timeline of Apocalypse
Providence hit early. Evacuated.
Televisions stop broadcasting.
The grid goes down.
Big fires, crazy explosions.
In isolated places, hundreds of miles from plants, skin starts peeling off (NC, Vermont)
Jenny arrived “here”
Matt arrived “here”
The play begins
Gibson arrived “here”
After population: 1 Million
First few years: 500,000
What is the purpose of the barricades around the cities and roads?
Do they travel by foot or by car? They travel far distances, but Gibson arrives on foot. There is nothing to support cars being gone.
Why were so many people separated? Should we assume the people on their lists are dead?
What is “the bug?” What is the casualty rate? What is the actual cause of death? How immediate is it?
Why is Colleen separate from the group in Act One?
In Act 2, Colleen mentions their budget. How do they budget, trade, and collect?
How can we make this accessible to audiences that are not familiar with these particular episodes? Does it matter if they haven’t watched The Simpsons?
What is the first commercial actually advertising? The drinks and food products? The bath? A product called Brand New Woman? Are commercials performed for entertainment, as nostalgia, or to sell products?
Matt mentions that he is married in Act 1, but puts his arm around Jenny and calls her babe. In Act 2, he calls Colleen babe. Are we to assume that these are romantic gestures?
This Diet Coke joke about women and gay men- is that grounded in anything? Is it implying that it is gay to drink Diet Coke because those men are concerned about their figure? Is this offensive? Also on the Diet Coke, in the published version of the script, Washburn changed where Maria “knows a guy” from Dayton to Wichita…Why?
Why do the surrounding theatres also perform episodes of The Simpsons? There are hundreds of other shows to choose from and with this system, they wouldn’t have to buy episodes from each other.
CRACKS & THREADS
I was born a little too late to grow up watching The Simpsons, but as a playwright and graphic designer, I find myself connected to many facets of this play. I am most compelled by characters in crisis turning to storytelling for healing and connection. I think that storytelling is equivalent to humanity. It lives in our bones, gives us breath, carries us through burdens we couldn’t imagine. I am addicted to stories. In fact, I cannot sit still in a silent room. I am almost always found with Netflix or music playing in times of solitude. I crave a constant fulfillment of sound, human emotion, and words. This began at a young age for me. The large age gap between my siblings and me left me watching Anastasia by myself and pretending to be her regularly. I remember the day I first read a children’s book on my own. I was six years old and I went to my neighbors’ homes and called my relatives to read to them. There was so much joy for me in writing, reading, and watching movies. When I was 11, I was emotionally abused, moved from my childhood home, and developed depression. This was the first time I found safety and comfort in stories. I needed them, not only to be happy, but to survive. In The Series of Unfortunate Events, I bonded over our shared loss of a home and abuse that neither of us could escape. The Baudelaire children shared my pain and my journey. We survived together, they helped me push forward. When I shared this story with my father, he started reading the books with me and this became the foundation of our relationship. We shared a love of reading and storytelling. To this day, this is how I connect with my father, whose reserved nature and schedule make him difficult to crack open. From Lemony Snicket to Lord of the Rings to The Walking Dead and Game of Thrones, sharing stories with my father has brought me so much joy. We even try to connect with forms of storytelling that the other doesn’t understand. He comes to see theatre, though he often falls asleep. I watch hockey games with him, though I am usually playing with my phone. He comes to performances of my plays, and while he has told me that he doesn’t understand why I write such sad stories (all of my plays are mental health and abuse activism), he still comes. It may seem silly to an outsider that in the wake of an apocalypse, a group focuses on theatre and The Simpsons, but connecting to the stories that brought us joy, strength, and hope is the most valuable way to maintain humanity, community, and the will to live.
Stepping beyond the personal, I think the notions of nostalgia are fascinating. It’s no coincidence that 90’s kids are so nostalgic were call ourselves 90’s kids. I read a theory once that people who grew up in the 90’s remember that time so fondly because of the major shifts in technology that literally divided their childhood and adulthood. Because we associate our childhoods with less technology and less responsibility, we remember it as a simpler time. Knowing this about myself, I prefer not to spend too much time in my childhood memories, though N’Sync certainly has a special place in my heart. The people in the world of the play are living with a similar, but opposite, condition. They relive their life before technology was destroyed by recreating the past in the best way they know how. After we have become so accustomed to a programmed world, what happens when we lose it all? Is this technological world actually “simpler” than a post-electric world?
Something that I find particularly incredible about the human brain is a concept called gestalt. This is the way that our brain perceives images and makes connections that are not actually there. As you can see in this image, the white triangle is just blank space, but we perceive it as its own shape. As I was searching for promotional images for Burns, I found gestalt images of The Simpsons characters. I am baffled that the brain can look at an image made of white, yellow, and light blue, and immediately associate it with Homer. These beloved characters have become so much a part of us that we don’t even need to see their faces to recognize them. In terms of costuming, this principle is the most interesting to me. Using color and shape to suggest what we know in our synapses, rather than creating something sculptural. Similarly, something that strikes me about the play is its use of muffling the familiar. It pulls from ideas of the “telephone” games and oral storytelling, suggesting small changes that come as a result of new storytellers. For instance, in Act 3, Sideshow Bob is replaced with Mr. Burns. This is something that I think Washburn wants to be highlighted in the music as well. Using lyrics that are minimally changed and the chorus in the background, the familiar becomes a source of discomfort.
AUDIO & VISUAL IMAGERY
This strong initial image of the characters sitting around the campfire creates a source of comfort and connection for the audience as they discover the tragedies that have happened.
Gibson Arrives, tiny sound
The peaceful image is broken immediately by a perceived threat, changing our perception of the world and the characters we have just met. What we thought was a group of friends, suddenly became threatening toward a stranger.
Gibson’s welcoming into the group notes a significant change in acceptance. Though the group rejects Colleen, we know that there must be a reason for it because Gibson is received warmly.
This is the only true image of emotional connection in the play. At a breaking point for Gibson, Sam embraces him in a way that Washburn says is unlike something we have seen, indicating that the cultural has already begun to shift.
Rehearsal interrupted weapons taken off safety
This moment of high tension breaks the bickering that has been happening onstage, revealing that the conflict between the characters is minimal compared to the threats outside of their theatre- human and nuclear.
Mr. Burns entrance echoes the entrances of Gibson and the intruders. It reflects the pattern repeated in each act.
Sitting around a campfire talking is a common pastime. This imagery is something that the audience members will be able to connect with despite the dramatic shift in the world’s circumstances.
Washburn is very specific about distance traveled. Having an atlas present only supports her calculations. Furthermore, I’m sure most people in the audience haven’t used an atlas for twenty years. It reinforces the world without technology, indicating that people had to learn how to travel without MapQuest or GPS.
Guns, or at least weapons, must be present for the tension Washburn seeks in moments of threats. She is seeking high contrast between the peaceful imagery of the campfire and suddenly drawing guns.
The sword that Sideshow Bob carries is a highlight of the episode and surely makes the sword fight more exciting if it’s actually there in the third act.
As noted, the treadmill is a very important reveal at the end of the show, that allows a look into the world of the third act. However, I will note that treadmills are powered by electricity and really difficult to move on your own. A bike is a better solution.
It’s my reading that the plug is unplugged from the wall and must be hidden to keep the illusion that electricity is being used instead of candles. It’s an important reminder to the audience that they have been unable to recreate electricity.
Though it’s clear that there needs to be some sort of costuming to suggest the characters, it’s not particularly specific about what they should look like. Washburn calls for early 21st century clothing and futuristic clothing in the third act, but what that looks like and how that works together to create the characters is unclear. Washburn leaves the production with a great deal of creativity, as I imagine she intended for the production to try to think like the characters experiencing the apocalypse- using found objects.
ECHOES, REPETITIONS, & RETURNINGS
Direct quotes from The Simpsons
Rather obviously, the characters directly quote “Cape Feare.” It is interesting to note, however, that not all of the quotes are perfect. Washburn was sure to skew some of the lines, because naturally, we cannot remember everything word for word from casual viewing and time passing.
Trying to find loved ones
The revisiting of these lists in the 3rd act is truly haunting. Washburn’s addition of new names indicates a wider community than just the characters we met in the first act. It also humanizes the millions that died in the nuclear apocalypse. This memorial means that the surviving people not only want to remember the world as it was (telephones, Diet Coke), but they don’t want to forget those who died, even those they never knew.
Much of the first act and some of the second deals with trying to sort through rumors. Much like the evolution of the recreation of “Cape Feare,” the rumors have traveled from person to person and place to place, likely making them unaccountable. This use of rumors indicates a lack of effective communication and effort to understand what has happened. People are still in survival mode, writing down the names or loved ones and looking for them takes precedence over reporting and writing down accounts of what happened.
In the first act, the world is quieter because people are on edge. We are more aware of the small sounds in the background (such as the stream) because the characters need to be prepared for danger (such as the “tiny noise” when Gibson comes). As the show progresses, these faint noises disappear. In fact, the intruders in act two make no sound, but are seen, taking the world from loud to quiet so that we are able to hear the safeties click off. It’s clear that in the third act the threats of danger have disappeared entirely because the musical is uninterrupted and full of noise.
I don’t remember
In the first act, people have already begun to forget things. While parts of a Simpsons episode aren’t the most vital information, it’s clear that people will gradually lose memories of the world as it was. This justifies their need to cling on to the past, reminding people of products that no longer exist and classic stories.
This word indicates a dramatic melody from the Cape Fear It is used repeatedly throughout the show, but Washburn does not indicate how much it changes over 82 years.
The play is filled with references to familiar songs, inviting our audience into the world and allowing their audiences nostalgia and insight into the world of the past.
“Livin’ La Vida Loca”
“You’re a mean one, Mr. Grinch”
Gilbert and Sullivan
The Arrival of a Threat
In each act, a threat arrives and we watch how it is dealt with. In the first act, Gibson is treated with hostility, but eventually accepted. In the second act the hostility progresses into violence and the deaths of two characters. In the third act, the violence is contained in the story, but there is a reversal from the second act. Whereas two “good guys” were killed in the second act, in the third, the villain Mr. Burns is slain.
Parallels between humor and violence in Itchy and Scratch
In the first act, the characters explain how funny Bart and Lisa find the violence in The Itchy and Scratchy Show. Ironically, we are likewise finding entertainment in violence. Though it’s unlikely that we find violence in Act One or Two funny, we are certainly shown comic violence between Bart and Mr. Burns. Washburn highlights this with the presence of Itchy and Scratchy as Mr. Burns’ henchmen.
Terror River map
Thunder and Lightning
“You’ll stay away forever”
Half embrace/ half restraint: Gibson/Sam and Burns/Homer
When asked the question “why this play now,” I doubt any theatre maker would not respond with the world Trump in 2017. A year ago, I wouldn’t have dreamed that he would be the President, but funny enough, an episode of The Simpsons saw it coming several years ago. Truthfully, Mr. Burns and Trump are similar people. They are power hungry, they are greedy, they use manipulation and fear tactics. As businessmen, they hold power over the livelihood of their employees and the economy. Just a few weeks ago, trump withdrew from the Paris Agreement, a decision that may impact environmental issues, while Mr. Burns is responsible for the downfall of the Springfield environment. Neither of them holds particularly positive images to the public, yet they remain in control. This show speaks as a nearly perfect metaphor for modern fears. People feel as though the world is falling apart. Nuclear Weapons are a major threat again. Strangers cannot be trusted. According to scientists, we have crossed a threshold of environmental damage that we will never be able to repair. I think many people who see this show will be seeing their fears come to life- the destruction of the earth and the human race. But, unlike other apocalyptic stories, Mr. Burns has hope. It shows people coming together, laughing, creating something together, after they have lost everything. During times of great stress, when the world is full of violence and hatred, a night of theatre that gathers people to laugh together makes an undeniable, though small, impact. As theatre is losing audiences to the convenience of streaming, Mr. Burns, argues for the relevance of theatre and the importance of being in rooms together.