In a near future, where nuclear fallout has devastated America, we find survivors camping in a scrapyard. Anne Washburn’s dark comedy begins at the most inevitable turn of events: sooner or later, someone will bring up The Simpsons.
There’s good reason to believe Matt Groening’s animated sitcom will survive the apocalypse. It must be the most quoted phenomenon in popular culture. Watch as Jenny (Karen McCartney), with sheer determination, recovers a joke about Sideshow Bob’s tattoos, or Maria (Nessa Matthews) shudders recalling Itchy and Scratchy. Matt (Peter Corboy) excitedly searches for lost dialogue to move the recollection on but instead the group sits in silence. Echoes of Beckett nicely haunt director Ronan Phelan’s vigorous production for Rough Magic.
Washburn’s screwy and profound play shows there may be a Simpsons reference for just about anything. The Springfield power plant is brought to fore as we hear of “fires” that engulfed the country. Such a disaster is eerily resonant; few things chime with fears about current leadership as Corboy’s appalled delivery: “People are not competent.”
The plot jumps ahead to find the group have formed a theatre troupe, with Simpsons copyright now the source of a bidding war. “I still can’t believe they got A Streetcar Named Marge,” someone says, while Tennessee Williams’s play sits redundant. The imitation has outlasted the original.
That’s a fascinating imagining of the future. It’s no accident that the episode the troupe are staging – one where Sideshow Bob tries to kill Bart – is itself a parody of the thriller film Cape Fear. We see that genre’s motifs of anticipation and anxiety translated into cartoonish terms. Of course, they’re already familiar; Molly O’Cathain’s immense set – a remarkable constellation of every imaginable chair pulled in front of a TV over the years – suspects our histories.
Yet, the play is a bit loaded. Washburn crams in surviving remnants of capitalism and popular culture, laboriously staged advertisements and medleys, and characterisation gets pushed to the side. What ever happened to that glimpse of a meaningful reunion? Or that horrific death?
But there’s no denying the shock of the final act, a musical theatre performance of a Simpsons plot that miraculously brings humankind’s fate full circle. The arrival of a murderous Mr Burns (Ross Gaynor) is more disturbing that you can imagine. But foiling his plan once again, Bart (Sophie Jo Wasson) sings with strange assurance about his future: “I will do everything.” Bizarrely, he just might.
Mr Burns is at Project Ars Centre, Dublin, until December 9th. For more details, .