“Mr. Burns” at the Guthrie Theater: Chills and giggles after the grid goes down

“Mr. Burns” at the Guthrie Theater: Chills and giggles after the grid goes down

I’ve rarely been so excited and nervous at the theater as I was before the lights went down on Mr. Burns, a Post-Electric Play. Would our big blue bastion, in partnership with the American Conservatory Theater, do justice to Anne Washburn’s razor-sharp play, which became the buzz of the theater world when it opened out east a few years ago? The news is good, for theater fans and for Simpsons fans—and especially for those of us who are both. This show is a zinger, one of the best I’ve ever seen at the Guthrie.

The play opens in the near future, after an unspecified event has caused the power grid to fail and roving bands of survivors are fending for themselves, fleeing across the country as nuclear reactors melt down. To amuse themselves, they start trying to remember their favorite Simpsons episodes; by act two, set seven years later, Simpsons lines and other remembered fragments of pop culture have become currency. By act three, set nearly a century later, the plot of the Simpsons episode “Cape Feare” has become a central myth in post-apocalyptic society.

The premise may or may not sound particularly promising to you; rest assured, on stage Mr. Burns is entertaining and compelling from beginning to end. I laughed a lot, but playwright Anne Washburn is dead serious about the role that stories play in our lives, and Mr. Burns gains depth and dimension moment by moment as it powers through to its musical climax, a bizarre and wonderful spectacle unlike anything you’ve ever seen on stage before.

Director Mark Rucker leads a team of crack performers, and the skill of the cast is crucial to making the delicate tone of this material work. We need to believe that these survivors have suffered real pain even as they recite some of Homer’s most buffoonish lines, and indeed we do; the gravity the cast brings to the first two acts is key to the effectiveness of the finale, which transforms The Simpsons into high drama that’s poignantly tragic to its participants while also darkly comic to us.

As are many of the best theatrical productions, Mr. Burns is about the act of storytelling itself, about our deep and desperate need for myths and legends, even those that come unassumingly labeled “entertainment.” Like the searing Scottsboro Boys, this show leverages the plush setting and substantial resources of the Guthrie to hit harder than it would in a smaller-scale production: as the tragic absurdity mounted, I found myself shaking my head at the wonder of it all.

So many plays can leave you wishing you’d just stayed at home and watched old episodes of The Simpsons. This Springfield stunner, on the other hand, is something well-worth getting off the couch for. If you’re going to see one play in Minneapolis this year, make it Mr. Burns.

Jay Gabler