What happens when all electricity is lost, the grid fails and the world as we know it ends? "Mr. Burns," a post-electric play showing at Trustus Theatre from Jan. 20 to Feb. 4, delves into these inquires with human storytelling.
The three-act event follows a group of people who distract themselves from an apocalypse by attempting to recall the “Cape Feare” episode of "The Simpsons" after America loses all electricity. What begins as a small distraction, grows into a traveling theater troupe that performs episodes of "The Simpsons" as a way to earn money, leading the group to form a Greek Theatre-esque production.
Though the play incorporates a lot of comedy that comes from its cartoon references, there is still a tragedy at its center. Looking back at her work, "Mr. Burns" creator Anne Washburn said in an interview with Vox, that she often compares "Mr. Burns" to a post 9/11 society. However, in the Trustus Theatre version, directed by Abigail McNeely, there is a new crisis haunting the play — COVID-19.
In "Mr. Burns," the characters are thrust into a world without electricity and have to learn how to survive. They deal with a quarantine, supply chain breakdowns and relearn to communicate when traditional modes of connecting have disappeared. McNeely said the parallels to the early moments of the pandemic felt “eerie.”
“Storytelling, inherently, gives us the ability to either elevate what's happening in our real lives or fully remove ourselves from it, and this play does both,” McNeely said. “I think being able to share with someone something like that where there is a shared experience of watching something and interpreting it and experiencing it, is one of the lifelines that has existed for as long as humans have existed.”
McNeely first became familiar with the play after seeing it during her senior year at USC when the Theater Department performed it. She said she was struck by the play and how different it was from anything else she had seen.
Once she graduated from USC, McNeely became the communications and production manager for Trustus Theatre in 2020 and has acted in other productions. When it came time to decide what Trustus would produce this season, McNeely felt that "Mr. Burns" was the perfect play for current times.
“Nowadays, to me, 'Mr. Burns' feels a lot more imminent. It feels a lot more realistic, which is scary, but it makes it so interesting to work on in this moment,” McNeely said.
Elizabeth Houck-Zozaya, a USC alumni who plays the parts of Maria and Lisa, was drawn to the play and the space it creates to reflect on personal experiences during the pandemic. They said that "Mr. Burns" offered a place for building community and empathy, and they felt it gave one permission to grieve moments lost to the pandemic that may not have been processed.
“I think there's a lot that we grieve," Houck-Zozaya said. "Usually there's just not space for it, and that's one thing that really drew me to the show was that it doesn't shy away from that.”
Patrick Michael Kelly, a professor at the USC Department of Theatre and Dance, plays the dual roles of Matt and Mr. Burns in the show. He said Washburn wrote the original play using an unconventional method called "devising" — a process where actors are given a theme to improvise around. The improvised scenes were then used in the final work, according to Kelly.
“A lot of our language, therefore, is really sort of hyper-realistic like in the way that people speak with lots of different tangents and random words thrown in, and sort of interrupted thoughts," Kelly said. "Because of that, it's really challenging to memorize."
Houck-Zozaya also experienced difficulty with line memorization and the show’s musical numbers. But despite its challenges, they are excited by the opportunity the show presents to be together and do live theater once again.
“It is such a joy and such a privilege to be here performing the show,” Houck-Zozaya said. “We actually get to be here together in this collective moment.”
While the play is about retelling "The Simpsons," prior knowledge is not required for entertainment. McNeely and Kelly said that while fans will love recalling the episodes, the enjoyment of the play does not depend on catching references. Kelly also said not to expect a dire post-apocalyptic story, or a laugh riot, but something more “balanced.”
“There is a lot of stuff about 'The Simpsons' in the play, but it's not really about that. It's about sort of larger themes of how culture persists like despite anything, despite everything, essentially,” Kelly said. “It's about the things that we remember, the things that stick with us.”
All tickets for "Mr. Burns" can be purchased on the Trustus Theatre website.