Imagine a not-so-distant apocalyptic future: Something has happened to our nuclear reactors. The grid is down. There are no phones or electricity. People are frightened and some have gone missing. A group of survivors huddles around a campfire, discussing, among other things, The Simpsons — a piece of pop culture they cling to as the world around them becomes increasingly uncertain.
This scene opens “Mr. Burns, a Post-Electric Play,” a dark comedy written by Anne Washburn that premiered in 2012 and is currently on stage at University of Iowa’s E.C. Mabie Theatre through Feb. 12.
The play takes the audience through a journey spanning 82 years, starting immediately after a nuclear catastrophe of some kind. In the second act, the group of survivors form a traveling theater group that performs Simpsons episodes to make ends meet. Finally, act three launches into a chaotic future 75 years later that shows what mythology has emerged in the post-apocolyptic world since.
“Imagine if the world ended tomorrow with our current knowledge of pop culture and that’s what we had to start over again,” said Tlaloc Rivas, director of Mr. Burns and assistant professor of theatre at UI.
“What do you do when (phones and other communication devices) get taken away and disappear forever? How do you find human connection beyond the way we communicate now?” Rivas implored. “How do you rebuild from that?”
The audience watches as the survivors navigate this new, hostile world devoid of comforts from years past, which Rivas thinks may spark the audience’s imagination, perhaps “what a future might look like if we continue down this path — with the choices we’re making politically and socially,” he said.
“It’s going to be very interesting to see how people experience the play,” he added.
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“What I love about this play is that it’s very subtextual, so there’s not a lot of things directly said,” said Rubina Vidal, an undergraduate senior at UI who plays Maria, Marge and Lisa.
“By the end of the play the audience is wondering what exactly happened — there are still questions left unanswered to get them thinking about what would happen in these situations,” she said.
In addition to a script that leaves room for creative interpretation, another challenge unique to this play is lighting a scene that theoretically shouldn’t have power.
“We want to use all the technical resources at our disposal, but this is a play that demands the opposite,” Rivas said. “It’s almost a slight of hand. You’re supposed to pretend it’s not being lit.”
In the opening scene, for example, light is theoretically coming only from a campfire, the moon and flashlights, but in reality, there are 30 to 40 instruments lighting the scene, said Alex Casillas, lighting director and graduate student at UI.
In later scenes, light comes from the headlights of a car and two makeshift spotlights made from paint cans and lamps.
“We had to rely on our imagination and create a world thinking about natural sources of light and where they come from,” Rivas explained.
“Mr. Burns was written for the explicit purpose of taking what’s familiar and breaking it,” Casillas said. “It’s definitely the most complicated, challenging and rewarding show I’ve ever worked on.”
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“A lot of love and care went into this show,” Rivas said, encouraging the public to catch it while they can — it will only run two weekends.
IF YOU GO
What: Mr. Burns, a Post-Electric Play
Where: University of Iowa’s Mabie Theatre, 107 Theatre Building, Iowa City
When: Feb. 3, 4, 8, 9, 10, and 11 at 8 pm, Feb. 5 and 12 at 2 pm
Details: Mr. Burns, a Post-Electric Play is a post-apocolyptic show that brings The Simpsons to live theater. It contains strong language, violence, gunshots, strobe and theatrical haze. Tickets are available through the Hancher Box Office, which can be reached at 319-335-1158.
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