You don't have to be a fan of “The Simpsons” to appreciate “Mr. Burns, A Post-Electric Play,” but it certainly helps.
Anne Washburn's dark comedy uses the long-running animated television series to illustrate how a piece of popular entertainment can morph into a cultural myth over time. Some familiarity with Homer Simpson, his dysfunctional all-American family, friends and enemies facilitates an understanding of the play's references, intricacies, nuances and twists. But even if you don't have that — and I admit I don't — you'll get the basic points about human resilience in the face of disaster and the power of theater to carry us through.
Those themes seem more relevant now than when “Mr. Burns” opened in 2012 at the Woolly Mammoth Theatre in Washington, DC, and went on to Off-Broadway the following year. They're even more pressing in our age of the pandemic than when Theater Wit staged the Chicago premiere in 2015.
That became one of the company's most acclaimed productions, and artistic director Jeremy Wechsler is directing this remount as he did the original. Returning cast members include Daniel Desmarais, Andrew Jessop, Tina Muñoz Pandya and Leslie Ann Sheppard. They are joined by Eileen Doan, Ana Silva, Jonah D. Winston and Will Wilhelm, each making their Theater Wit debut. All of them play multiple characters.
The three-act saga begins in a post-apocalyptic world that has apparently been destroyed by a global nuclear meltdown (though nowadays destruction by fire, flood and/or political upheaval seem equally likely). Survivors, who keep notebooks of loved ones' names and ages to ask others about them, wander the land and congregate in small groups.
We first see one such group gathered around a campfire trying to recreate from memory an episode of “The Simpsons,” specifically the “Cape Feare” segment in which Homer’s son, Bart, is hounded by evil Sideshow Bob. In turn, that was partly a takeoff on the 1991 Martin Scorsese film “Cape Fear,” a remake of a 1962 movie starring Robert Mitchum, whose earlier role in “The Night of the Hunter” also comes up in the episode, along with Gilbert & Sullivan operettas.
These details figure heavily when a stranger shows up and is greeted with hostility but then redeems himself by contributing an important tidbit to the discussion and singing some of “Three Little Maids from School” from “The Mikado.”
The “Cape Feare” sequence is crucial to Act 3, but before that, in Act 2, set seven years after Act 1, the group has become a roving acting troupe competing with others to re-enact “The Simpsons” escapades, commercials and all. Competition is so stiff that they buy lines from each other, leading to accusations of theft and plagiarism in a disheartening perversion of capitalism peppered with violence.
Act 3 fast-forwards 75 years, and the Simpsons have become symbols as the only survivors of the nuclear disaster. They escape on a boat but then have to do battle with the evil Mr. Burns, who is especially intent on destroying Bart. The catch is that what has become an elaborate pageant about the past reconfigures the whole story. For starters, the character plotting to kill Bart now is Mr. Burns instead of Sideshow Bob, and Itchy and Scratchy, the cat and mouse, are collaborators rather than mortal enemies.
This final act focuses on an epic battle and has a dark trajectory that's relieved by some supernatural beings and a hopeful finale. It also has some of the best songs in the show, which has a score by Michael Friedman with lyrics by Washburn. Not surprisingly, many of the numbers are variations on hits by the likes of Britney, Beyoncé and Lady Gaga. Credit belongs to offstage musicians Eugene Dizon (also music director), Scott Sedlacek and Carlos Mendoza and the cast for bringing them to life.
Everyone in the ensemble is excellent, but extra credit goes to Sheppard for her Bart and Jessop for Burns as well as Winston and Wilhelm for all their roles. Mara Blumenfeld and Mieka van der Ploeg's costumes, some of which are hilarious, stand out. Joe Schermoly's sets and Heather Gilbert's lighting have their moments, as do Christopher Kriz's sound design, Brigitte Ditmars' choreography and David Woolley, Jon Beal and Kai Young's fight choreography.
I just have two reservations about “Mr. Burns, A Post-Electric Play.” The minor one is that the time of Acts 2 and 3, projected in light on a curtain, is almost impossible to read, so I had to look up how many years had elapsed between acts. A more serious issue is that each act seems too long. The battle, in particular, is endless.
On the other hand, the final image of the title character proving his post-electric mettle is priceless. Go see the play to find out why.