I’m struck by an historical hypothesis I heard about Native Americans: We know that perhaps 85-95% of pre-Colombian inhabitants of the Americas were killed by disease within a few generations of contact with Westerners. Often, the bulk of these deaths took place before real interaction between Old and New Worlders occurred. Explorers may have met people from an Indian nation and passed on diseases which ravaged that population and neighboring peoples before the Native inhabitants encountered the next Western interlopers. Fifty more years of devastation might then pass before missionaries or conquistadors got around to writing about a nation.
So: most of what we know about pre-Colombian Native American culture should be seen through the prism of an apocalyptic upheaval in those cultures. What, I’ve wondered, would 21st-century American culture look like if all we knew about it was told generations after a holocaust of disease. Anne Washburn’s MR. BURNS: A POST-ELECTRIC PLAY, now at Villanova Theatre, proposes a possible answer.
In the first act, disease has wiped out much of the American population. With no one to care for nuclear power stations, radiation has left large areas inhabitable. A group of survivors gather around, trying to remember details of their favorite Simpsons episode: the episode which spoofs Cape Fear.
Drawn from real dialog by the troupe who first performed the piece, it’s the strongest part of the play. Washburn recognizes that the things we find important about the past reflect our current society (the survivors luxuriate in the idea of electricity, TV, refrigerators, fast food), and Villanova’s cast (students of its theater MFA program) bring a naturalism to the post-apocalyptic gathering, as does designer Colin McIlvaine’s subtle use of set clues.
Set a decade later, the second act sees the same group traveling the ravaged country performing versions of Simpson’s episodes, competing with other companies to own copyrights to individual episodes. Washburn is perceptive: Society has collapsed, there’s no electricity, but bureaucratic copyright law is still strong.
A score by the recently deceased composer Michael Friedman (Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson) backs the third act, an all-musical scene set generations in the future. Director Jill Harrison guides her cast through three very different performances, from naturalism to operatic symbolism, and Washburn again proves insightful portraying a twisted recollection of turn-of-the-millennium American pop culture.
The music and shows we take for granted have become a mediocre high-art musical in the future. But to see that observation, we have to sit through the mediocre 30-minute high-art musical. that is this play’s third act. Like the future, the present has its ups and downs.
[Villanova Theatrer] February 6-18, 2018; villanovatheatre.org