Taylor Jack Nelson has been thinking about the apocalypse, and what might happen after, when people have no electricity — and, without it, no television.
“What would be left of our culture if we lost this form of mass communication?” asked Nelson, who is co-directing the first Utah production of Anne Washburn’s play, “Mr. Burns: A Post-Electric Play,” for Provo’s An Other Theater Company. The production opens Friday, July 12, and runs Fridays and Saturdays through Aug. 3.
What’s left, at least In Washburn’s play, are memories of the most ubiquitous family on television: The Simpsons.
“It is kind of America’s family,” said the play’s other co-director, Kacey Spadafora. “It’s a touchstone around which the people would gather.”
Nelson agreed. “Even if people don’t have a direct experience with [‘The Simpsons’], you know what it is,” he said.
The play is told in three acts. The first act is a few years after an apocalypse that has wiped out all electricity on Earth. A few survivors sit around a campfire, trying to remember stories from before the world changed. One they manage to piece together is from “The Simpsons” — specifically, the 1993 episode “Cape Feare,” when a paroled Sideshow Bob plots to kill Bart Simpson, in a spoof of the noir thriller “Cape Fear.”
Underneath the memory game, the survivors are “feeling this pressure, the anxiety and stress, of having lost their loved ones,” said Mara Lefler, who plays one of the survivors. “It’s about how they use ‘The Simpsons’ episode to self-soothe, to find each other, to find joy in that circumstance.”
Act Two finds those same survivors seven years later, after they have formed an acting troupe that travels the countryside performing “The Simpsons” — as best they can remember it — to any audience they can find.
“I was thinking, ‘What happens to the story? What’s the game of telephone? What changes, and why does it change?’” Washburn told NPR in an interview in 2013, when the play first premiered.
In Act Three, it’s 75 years later, and performing “The Simpsons” has morphed into something similar to a religious ritual — and the actors wear masks, like ancient Greeks performing “Oedipus Rex,” but in yellow.
“Because it’s so far removed from what they were initially, Bart can be whatever Bart wants to be,” said Lefler, who plays Bart in Act Three. “Bart is an amalgamation of what we remember Bart to be.”
The play’s title suggests one way memory warps the storyline. As the survivors try to remember the plot of the “Cape Feare” episode, some can’t remember who the villain is: the maniacal TV clown Sideshow Bob or the greedy tycoon Mr. Burns.
Part of that confusion is tied up in the survivors’ fear of nuclear radiation, Spadafora said, because the apocalypse that wiped out the electrical grid also melted down the nuclear reactors. “No one actually knows how long the radiation lasts,” Spadafora said. Mr. Burns owned the nuclear power plant in the fictional Springfield, and that strengthened the image of him as a villain in the survivors’ minds.
Melding comedy and drama, and changing between roles as survivors and “Simpsons” characters is a challenge, the directors said. “The actors have their work cut out for them,” Spadafora said.
Lefler credits Washburn for writing a “brilliant” play. “She’s written something that is very, very smart, and funny and poignant at the same time,” Lefler said. “She’s layered in comedy underneath tragedy.”
“Mr. Burns” is the last production of An Other Theater Company’s second season. Spadafora and Nelson, the nonprofit troupe’s co-founders, have already started planning season three, a seven-play slate that includes such modern classics as John Patrick Shanley’s Catholic drama “Doubt” and Larry Kramer’s AIDS chronicle “The Normal Heart.”
“We knew it was a risk doing the theater we do in Provo and Utah County,” Spadafora said. “It’s an area where big family musicals are the focus. We had this theory that if we did a different kind of theater here, there would be an audience for it. And we were right.”
‘Mr. Burns: A Post-Electric Play’
An Other Theater Company presents the Utah premiere of Anne Washburn’s play “Mr. Burns: A Post-Electric Play,” in which survivors of an apocalypse find a common purpose by trying to remember episodes of “The Simpsons.”
Where • Provo Towne Centre, 1200 Towne Centre Blvd., Provo. The theater is on the mall’s second floor, near Dillard’s.
When • The production runs Fridays and Saturdays, from July 12 to Aug. 3.
Tickets • $15; $12 for students, $13 for seniors, at anothertheatercompany.com.