One of the facts that people always bring up about the Twin Cities is that we have more theater seats per capita than anywhere else outside of New York City. I am not sure if this is completely true, but it is a statistic that certainly rings true to me. We have so many venues for the performing arts throughout Minneapolis and St. Paul that it can be difficult to keep track of whats all playing, and people really see a lot of plays around here. Probably the most prominent is the Guthrie Theater, the feather in the Twin Cities performing arts’ cap, the big, fancy blue hulk rising up out of the old milling district by the river, inviting the whole city to consider seeing some cutting edge drama. Last week, I made a second visit to the Guthrie to see a show I had been interested in since I read about it premiering in New York a few years ago, the “post-electric” fable, Mr. Burns, by playwright Anne Washburn.
I was excited to find out that playwright was making a Minneapolis stop, and quickly snapped up some tickets to a “preview performance“, which is a great way to see the show without forking over some major cash. Often half the cost of seeing a performance later in the week, it is also a cool way to see how performances change as well. “Mr. Burns” has a fascinating premise, even for such a lax follower of the Simpsons as myself, one that grabbed me from the second I read about it. While I am not the biggest Simpsons fan, I must admit, I am friends with many people who are so, like the character Gilbert, I can recall a lot without having even seen the show. This may be how a lot of oral culture evolves…
After a suitably vague global catastrophe renders much of America depopulated and lacking working technology, a group of people gather together for protection and begin to reminisce about so much of the pop culture they lost; specifically, the Simpsons episode “Cape Feare,” which itself is a treasure trove of nostalgic parody of other pop culture. We then see the evolution of these memories as the years progress, until, nearly a century later, they’ve morphed into an oral culture preserving aspects of the “time before” and its fall for the descendants of our culture. It makes me wonder how “classics” such as the Odyssey or Beowulf evolved over centuries. The actors do a great job presenting this casual, but fraught, discussion, especially in the earlier acts, and the epic musical finale, the descendant dramatic play, was an eerie, and effecting elegy of our culture after its death. It dovetailed quite well, eerily well, with a certain post-apocalyptic turn I’ve taken in my reading of late, an interesting use of nostalgia and imagination to think of the apocalypse, a theme I saw again and again in dystopic literature.
Rehearsal performance or not, the actors really sold the performances of the play, a dark, melancholy reflection of our current preoccupations with pop culture and fear of the future. There are definitely a lot of funny moments, as befits a show premised on people , but there is also a lot of pathos, and definitely a lot to ponder after having seen the show. I also enjoyed the “localization” of the setting, citing worries of nearby nuclear power plants in Monticello and Prairie Island melting down.
I would definitely recommend seeing Mr. Burns at the Guthrie while you can. I often know a lot about various episodes without actually having seen them, by piecing together quotes and scenes recited by others. Definitely check it out before it’s over!