The famously rushed final season of "Game of Thrones" concluded with (no spoilers ahead, really), Tyrion Lannister giving a speech about the importance of stories to unite people.
It was a reversal of the "show, don't tell" rule of storytelling, one of the reasons it felt mildly disappointing. What if the same message was embiggened with a episode's worth of "Simpsons" jokes?
In its own absurdist fashion, "Mr. Burns, a Post-Electric Play," a new production by the University of Montana School of Theatre & Dance, demonstrates the importance of stories but doesn't lecture on the value of narratives, even ones as seemingly ridiculous as an episode of "The Simpsons."
Playwright Anne Washburn is aware that the long-running animated classic is essential in a pop culture way but not in a "physical survival" way, which makes it the perfect expression of humanity's craving for stories, and how they can change over time to gain outsize importance relative to their origins.
Washburn's play premiered in 2012, and like many modern pieces of theater, it assumes that the audience is savvy with less-than-straightforward set-ups. If you've spent any time binge-watching "Fleabag" and other modern prestige television shows, unconventional narratives should be easy to dive into.
There has been an apocalyptic event related to nuclear power and the United States has descended into lawlessness, with individuals banding together as they can to survive. A group of younger people have found each other. They don't have too much to talk about other than the dire situation, and who might have survived. What they might have in common?
"Cape Feare," an episode of the show that was in turn based on the 1991 Scorsese-de Niro film "Cape Fear," which is in turn a remake of a 1962 movie starring Robert Mitchum. Just like "The Simpsons" as a whole, the play is Pizza Hut Stuffed Cheez-it of references, but it's not required to know all of them to enjoy it.
Director Jadd Davis, a graduate student, and company have cultivated a pleasing world-building feel to this opening scene. Scenic designer Blain Radford turns the large stage at the Montana Theatre into a woodland at night, where they sit around a "burning" fire. Costume designer Alessia Carpoca has outfitted them in jury-rigged survivalist gear. The cast members, all UM undergraduates and a few graduates, do great work in this scene, which is written as hyper-realist campfire conversation, with all the cross-talk and imperfect speech that you'd expect in such a scenario.
Threats surround them, which Washburn makes clear in straight dramatic moments, and yet here they are, trying remember how that particular episode went. It's a very human thing to do, like staying inside on a summer day to watch Netflix while wildlife smoke fills the air around you.
In the second act, seven years down the line, the group has refined their memories of the episode. They're one of many traveling acts that survive by touring the presumed wasteland performing. They pine for things like Diet Coke, simple comforts of a simpler time. Washburn injects authenticity here, too, reminding us that they're traumatized by their life here.
In the third act, the setting has jumped another 70 years into the future. The rendition of "Cape Feare" has mutated from an entertaining distraction into a quasi-mythical re-enactment or ceremony. Some societies have religion, "The Odyssey" or Shakespeare, this one has a cartoon.
This myth is delivered as a through-sung operetta, just like the Gilbert and Sullivan gag that closed out "The Simpsons" episode. The music, by Michael Friedman, references religious choral music, Eminem and Britney Spears, plus more pop songs that flew past this audience member.
The cast switch from their dramatic realist mode to song and dance (and fight choreography). In the first two acts, Sugar Bush portrays a stoic security guard for the crew. In the third, he's the devil figure, Mr. Burns (don't forget how this apocalypse started). It's a great performance, particularly when he's referencing both de Niro's gonzo killer while wearing a "Mr. Burns" yellow bald cap and explaining good and evil via his "luv and hāt" knuckle tattoos. (Remember, the residents of Springfield only have three fingers and a thumb.)
The entire cast deserves credit for their work in this third act, a marathon of movement and voice that's choreographed for maximum ridiculousness. They sing the dramatic "Cape Fear" theme music as a goofy series of "wah-wah" sounds.
Western Montana can be a drought zone for contemporary theater, with only a handful of productions of new non-musical shows in Missoula each year. Anne Washburn's play premiered in 2012, and doesn't have any name recognition, outside of "The Simpsons" association, for casual theater-goers. It was bold of UM to take a risk on something that's probably not an easy sell, that seems offbeat when described in writing, is a challenge for students but easy to enjoy from the audience seat, and is a piece of theater first and foremost.