Praying at the Altar of Mr Burns

What would it take for the cultishly worshipped cartoon The Simpsons to become a fully-fledged religion? Just a nuclear holocaust and time, says Mitchell Butel, star of the State Theatre/Belvoir St Theatre co-production Mr Burns: A Post-Electric Play.

Nothing is original, the saying goes. Everything has been written before and all the entertainment we consume is essentially the same old set of stories wrapped up and repackaged in new ways. So it is with Mr Burns. The play isn’t a stage adaptation of The Simpsons, though. It’s a play about survivors of an apocalypse staging adaptations of The Simpsons.

“It’s a very wacky, strange kind of high concept play,” says Mitchell Butel, a leading member of the Mr Burns cast. “It’s great. You often see these kinds of high concept stories in films, but not often on a theatre stage, so it’s fabulous. It’s dazzling and intelligent and stupid and very smart.”

Butel sums up New York playwright Anne Washburn’s intention with the play: “The central thesis is about the way popular culture has sort of become the main story through which we communicate now as a modern culture. In the old days maybe it was religious stories or travelling theatre troupes, but her idea is that through pop culture – pop music and television – that’s where, in many ways, our common humanity springs from.”

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Mitchel Butel readies for a transformation into Mr Burns (photo: Sia Duff)

Washburn’s script mashes together traditions of old-school storytelling and pop culture, as Mr Burns’ survivors distract themselves from an almost-world-ending event by recalling a classic Simpsons episode before going on to form their own post-apocalyptic theatre company.

“They recount the famous Cape Feare episode of The Simpsons,” says Butel. “Through that they start to piece together this old episode, which is not quite what it was in reality. Then we cut to seven years later and they become a travelling theatre troupe that travel around the country doing old episodes of The Simpsons because there’s no electricity left on the planet.”

The play then skips about a century into the future, and, lo-and-behold, the tales of The Simpsons have become intertwined with all sorts of other pop culture that survivors could remember without the aid of the internet or iPods. It’s a surreal all singing and dancing quasi-religion by this point, and an important way for those people to make sense of their broken world.

“We do this as a sort of nativity play, I guess, but with characters of The Simpsons,” Butel explains. “We retell what happened to the world in this crisis by using Mr Burns as a symbol of corporate greed and nuclear power, and with Bart Simpson as a kind of every man hero who tries to remain indomitable in the face of ecological destruction.”

Cape Feare is an appropriate episode of The Simpsons for Washburn to base a crucial part of this meta story on. The episode is a parody of the 1991 Scorsese film Cape Fear; a remake of the 1962 film of the same name, which itself is based on John D. McDonald’s  1957 novel The Executioners. This Russian doll-like recounting of older narratives is crucial to Mr Burns’ key message, says Butel.

“The retelling of this story really become about finding out how we create a story that deals with our history, like classic Biblical myths.”

Likewise, the way stories flex and change to reflect their present society is key. Butel explains that in the play’s renditions of the Cape Feare, the original episode’s villainous clown Sideshow Bob eventually becomes Mr Burns, himself a symbol of corporate greed and nuclear havoc.

“Interestingly, in the Cape Feare episode, Mr Burns actually doesn’t appear much,” says Butel. “Sideshow Bob is the villain. But in our Chinese-whispers retelling where the musical ends up being 100 years on from the nuclear fallout, the villain becomes Mr Burns and they get rid of Sideshow Bob.”

Yes, the levels of intertextuality run deep here, but that’s not to say the play is inaccessible, as Butel asserts: “I don’t think you can be a modern metropolitan dweller and have missed what The Simpsons is.” After all, much of the play hinges on and toys with peoples’ knowledge of that cartoon and pop culture.

“The entry points are really easy since we all know those characters and their stories,” he says. “From that we spring into a play that has many points about how do we conserve, how do we sustain and protect the planet.”

mr-burns-mitchell-butel-sia-duff-adelaide-review“It’s a lot of fun – bad wigs and bad masks. Bald caps and whatnot,” says Butel (photo: Sia Duff)

It also seems natural for a play like this, with its many contemporary criticisms and warnings, to use The Simpsons as a jumping off point.

“In of itself [The Simpsons] has a lot to do with broken American dreams, and nuclear crisis and ecological devastation, so it’s already in that ballpark. Taking it and subverting it like this feels not too far from what it was.”

Looking at all the thematic and structural concepts woven into Mr Burns, one might assume that the show will be difficult for audiences to digest. Not so, says Butel.

“It’s eight people in crisis, you know, and that’s always funny – eight people arguing for power,” he says. “The gags are pretty good and it ends up in this bizarre musical in the end which is a mash of all these famous television commercials and of pop hits like Single Ladies and Who Let the Dogs Out and Kanye. There’s a lot of colour and movement.”

So, Mr Burns is more of a pop culture patchwork with a message than a wholly original piece?

“I guess [Washburn’s] point is that that’s not necessarily a bad thing,” Butel says. “Yes, it’s great to have an original story, but it’s also fine to recognise that much of the way we connect with each other is through those classic myths, whether they be religious or literary.”

Mr Burns: A Post-Electric Play
Saturday, April 22 until Saturday, May 13

Space Theatre
statetheatrecompany.com.au

Header image: Courtesy State Theatre Company of SA (photo: James Hartley)

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