During intermission at the Guthrie Theater Saturday night, some people talked excitedly about the Simpsons-obsessed, post-apocalyptic world in Anne Washburn's Mr. Burns, a post-electric play. Others couldn't stand it. "I want to slit my wrists now," said one.
I loved it. And I loved that viewers were so divided about it — and so passionate with their opinions. Too often, Twin Cities theater is a passive experience. Here is something that will shake an audience out of complacency. The clever script is loaded with enough pop-culture references to make Seth MacFarlane dizzy, but also has enough tough and even frightening moments to truly sell a terribly changed world.
"After an apocalyptic nuclear event has permanently taken down the electrical grid," according to the program, Mr. Burns shows us the future in three different time frames. The first act is set just weeks after the disaster, as survivors attempt to pick up whatever pieces they can — and entertain themselves by remembering The Simpsons episode "Cape Feare."
Act Two jumps forward seven years, as those characters have become a traveling theatrical troupe, presenting "Cape Feare" and other episodes of the show as best as they can remember them. Finally, we travel forward 75 more years, to see how the production has further evolved.
In the original episode, Sideshow Bob stalks the Simpsons after being paroled from prison. The Simpsons go into witness protection, but Bob terrorizes them on a houseboat on Terror Lake — before Bart saves the day by having Bob present all of H.M.S. Pinafore until the police arrive to save them.
These events get twisted and remolded throughout the play. The details shift depending on what the audience wants as well. In the first act, the recounting is simply a way to pass the time with something other than the faint hope that a traveler has run across a missing family member.
In Act Two, it becomes about remembering the comforts of the old world — ice-cold Diet Coke, prepackaged food, and cheesy pop hits like "Livin' La Vida Loca."
It's the transformation in Act Three where Washburn's work pays off. "Cape Feare" has turned into an epic pageant, where the events of the episode have merged with world-changing terrors.
The villain has evolved into Mr. Burns, the evil executive at the Springfield Nuclear Plant. Dressed like Captain Jack from Pirates of the Caribbean, Mr. Burns tortures the Simpsons to the tune of "Toxic" — proving that even the end of the world won't keep Britney Spears down.
It's easy to see why the play is so divisive. The structure can be hard to follow, and the first 15 minutes find the characters trying to remember the various details of the episode. Act Two has several stretches that try patience. Yet most of that pays off in the brilliant, fully musical finale.
The company also sells the new world completely. A mixture of Guthrie veterans and newcomers builds a complex, breathing world that can be funny and frightening in the same moment. Even if you end up hating Mr. Burns, it's worth catching. You won't see anything like it before the end of the world.
IF YOU GO:
Mr. Burns, a post-electric play The show is in previews through Friday, opens Saturday, and and runs through May 10 Guthrie Theater 818 S. Second St., Minneapolis $34-$65 ($15-$46 for previews) For tickets and more information, call 612-377-2224 or visit online.