This is now the third time I have seen an Outside the March production (forth if you include the film adaptation of Vitals), a group that puts on site specific theatre shows that create an immersive experience for the audience. With their newest show Mr. Burns a Post Electric Play they have once again challenged what is considered normal for theatre conventions. The play is broken down into three separate acts all showcasing a different time period after an unnamed apocalypse occurs and takes out all power with it. The show is an ensemble production that is more interested in setting the mood and forcing the audience to reconcile with their own mortality as opposed to having complex characters and growth.
Walking into an old run down movie house, dubbed Toronto’s Historic Aztec Theatre (it’s the first of many Simpson’s references), there are missing person posters and instructions on what roads are safe to travel plastered around the lobby. The ushers are clad in cult like robes with a nuclear image branded on the back. OTM certainly knows how to set a stage and create an atmosphere. The first act of the show takes place not long after the world, as we know it has ended. The mood is dark and the stage reflects that. With all the tension in the air you assume the play has more in common with a horror film (a genre that that hasn’t really been cracked by the theatre world) than a Simpson’s parody. But after the dust settles and you realize that there is a group of people huddled together to ensure safety and to entertain them selves they tell stories. Except with people that grew up from the late 80’s onwards what show has been more popular than The Simpson’s. As such this group of survivors meticulously retell entire episodes, partly as something to pass the time, another as a tool to stay connected to the previous world. These people recreate the famous Cape Fear parody episode (titled Cape Feare) with such detail they argue over what brief moment came before another. The episode is famous for the ‘rake gag’ where Sideshow Bob steps on one rake after another causing it to go from funny, to pointless, to extremely funny since the gag keeps on going (the longer something lasts the funnier it becomes) and listening to these people describe only the first few scenes in agonizing detail it keeps getting funnier and funnier the longer they do it.
With a run down set held up by scaffolding and the actors only having hand held flashlights to light the stage, it was not hard to believe their world was now ours too. The show seems to have plenty in common with other forms of pop culture like how one man seems to be travelling across the country with no real purpose except to find somewhere better much like in The Road, where the father must lie to his son to keep his spirits up. While the whole act is funny it all is coated in dread and paranoia where no one is truly able to trust other people keeping the audience on the edge of their seats as well.
When the second act rolls around it is now seven years after the first scene. The group of apocalypse survivors have now become travelling performers, acting out Simpson’s episode complete with commercials for other townsfolk. Since this is a world without electricity the group must make do with what they can to recreate sounds and images. The impressive sound design team helped create emanating sound effects like an old hand crank phonograph player for music and using water jugs to making the sound of a tub filling up with water. The sound is paired with an equally impressive props team who use chalk brushes for hot water steam and a mirror placed in the back of a ‘TV’ that bounces off light to give the illusion that the TV is on. The second act takes place entirely in a rehearsal where we learn there are warring factions of vaudeville troupes who trade off episodes as if they own them. After the paranoia and fear of the first act you see this group of people acting to regain some sense of normalcy. People desperately cling onto everyday things in hope of staying sane and remembering that there was once life before all this madness. One of the highlights is of a petty argument over how long the world’s supply of Diet Coke must have lasted after everything went down. The group tries to quantify how man cans where sitting around in warehouses and stores and how many cans people can drink in a day. The scene has the banality of the lusting of Twinkie’s in Zombieland. When everything is said and done we won’t all be talking about major elections or who owns what kind of phone, but little things like our favourite snack or memorable TV shows.
During part of the rehearsal for the group they practice a song number that is essentially a greatest hits melody of mid 2000’s to 2015. After all the time has passed it is hard to exactly remember all the lyrics word for word so people make do. As long as the song flows the words aren’t important. Hearing Toxic and Lose Yourself strung together with choreographed dance moves is very entertaining. The two songs actually come back into play in the third act but with a very different feel to them. The beauty of this ensemble cast is that none of them stand out; the story is more about humanity than the daily struggles and growth of single people.
By the time the third act rolls around 75 years after Act Two it is just a performance of Cape Feare without any other context to how the world works. We know that after a period of time survivors have figured out a way to harness power from natural sources and the props and costumes are still handmade, but due to a possible lack of people being alive during the original run of The Simpson’s the papier-mâché masks the cast wear are ugly and demented, the type of stuff that can haunt your dreams. Without giving too much away the final act is a living neon nightmare that looks like it was designed after too many re-watches of Joel Schumacher’s Batman & Robin. Theatre, for the most part, has been unable to successfully translate the horror genre for audiences; it usually works best with intense drama’s or smart comedies but the in your face attitude that Mr. Burns has it is impossible not to be creeped out at minimum.
Over time the act of telling of stories, like Simpson’s episodes, becomes a game of broken telephone where minor plot points don’t matter as much as the over arching story. As such you end up with Mr. Burns as the main antagonist in Cape Feare as opposed to Sideshow Bob like it originally had. You even end up with Itchy and Scratchy as minions (much like The Lion King’s hyenas) antagonizing the family. The songs mentioned earlier come back into play as the owner of the Nuclear Power Plant, Mr. Burns sings how he is ‘toxic’ and Bart sings a battle cry to pump himself up so he doesn’t ‘lose yourself’ complete with adjusted lyrics to match their motives. The third act features as few impressive details like a very large puppet that crawls over the audience and terrorizes everyone and an absolutely phenomenal performance from Ishai Buchbinder playing the titular Mr. Burns. I know I said that there are no weak parts, but Buchbinder who only appears in the final act, steals the show with the worst incarnation of a cartoon character you will ever see. Mr. Burns is more sadistic and menacing that he ever was to Homer on the show.
The play is about how we tell stories to each other with thoughts of myths and biblical lessons being passed down by generations of people before we had the extensive record keeping that humanity currently has enjoyed for the last hundred years of so. People will always want to share something and if the world ended today, you can bet that The Simpson’s would probably be a popular choice for campfire stories. Much like in The World’s End, after the world has ended, people want to continue with their lives even if we don’t have the traditional safety blanket that we all currently enjoy.
Mr. Burns a Post Electric Play is playing at The Aztec Theatre (don’t Google it) until June 7th. Click here to buy tickets and let us know what you think of the show.