A POST-APOCALYPTIC PLAY built around an episode of The Simpsons, in three acts, spanning 80 years: I just want you to know what you're getting into when you see Portland Playhouse's Mr. Burns: A Post-Electric Play. It's pretty much exactly as weird as you think it is. Or maybe it's not. Did I mention there's a song and dance number in the second act? Oh, and the whole last act is a musical.
Part of it is staged outside.
The playwright is Portland's pride Anne Washburn, a onetime Reedie and a winner (just last week!) of the PEN/Laura Pels Award for a mid-career playwright. It's the first of her plays to be produced in Portland since her days at Reed.
Director Brian Weaver and the company at Portland Playhouse seem to be a perfect match for a wild, experimental playwright like Washburn. Each of Mr. Burns' three acts is performed on a separate stage. In a play that feels more and more experimental as it goes, the first act is the most traditional: The characters try to remember the plot to an episode of The Simpsons, occasionally dropping bits of exposition about the world at large.
About that world: Nuclear plants are failing. Fires and radiation are spreading over the country. The suspense is thick, and the decision to stage this act outside is brilliant—even passing cars on NE Prescott or distant neighborhood voices can't help but take on the tone of the play.
It all feels sort of distant, especially as the second act zooms seven years ahead to a post-apocalypse theater company, presenting a look at art and entertainment post-everything.
This is what you might call a play of ideas. It's not a story. Sure, the first two acts have the trappings of narrative: There are characters and events—time passes. But it feels architectural, like preemptive footnotes or a prologue. Or just a cheat sheet for what's to come.
Because the third act is where Mr. Burns goes all in. With no narrative setup, we dive into what theater becomes 80-some years after the apocalypse. It's an insane pastiche of ancient theater styles, song, dance, shadow puppets, the history of cartoons, Gilbert and Sullivan, Britney Spears, nuclear holocaust, infanticide, cannibalism, Night of the Hunter, both Cape Fears, and, of course, The Simpsons.
Needless to say, you better like weird. If you can get behind experimental theater more interested in asking questions than answering them, this is the show for you.