Stephen F. Austin State University

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'Mr. Burns' connects 'The Simpsons,' pop-culture, post-apocalyptic future

October 31, 2017 - Robbie Goodrich
SFA School of Theatre student actors, from left, Travis Brasher, Wichita Falls senior; Terrance Simon, Houston senior; Anais Saenz, Houston senior; Alexis Beck, Nacogdoches sophomore; Gareth Phipps, Dallas sophomore; and Abigail Junk, Leander junior, rehearse a scene from Anne Washburn's "Mr. Burns, a post-electric play" to be presented at 7:30 nightly Tuesday through Saturday, Nov. 7 through 11, in W.M. Turner Auditorium on the SFA campus.
NACOGDOCHES, Texas - The characters in Anne Washburn's "Mr. Burns, a post-electric play" use the TV series "The Simpsons" as a vehicle - a shield or distraction - to avoid dealing with the hard truth of the world as it has become in a post-apocalyptic era.

That perspective by scenic designer Kenneth Verdugo helped guide his thought process in designing the set for the dark comedy to be presented by the Stephen F. Austin State University School of Theatre as part of its 2017-18 Mainstage Series.

"The play is extremely dark at times," said Verdugo, visiting assistant professor in the School of Theatre. "I wanted to go very dark at first - mirroring a kind of 9/11 picture of despair and hopelessness. Keeping it light was my challenge."

"Mr. Burns" combines a nuclear catastrophe, "The Simpsons" and the myth-making impulse to reinvent contemporary theatre, according to its director, Slade Billew, assistant professor of acting/movement at SFA.

The play follows six people (and later seven) who have survived a nationwide nuclear power disaster. Society has collapsed, and there is no electricity. In Act One, the characters sit around a fire and try to recall an episode of "The Simpsons." Act Two occurs seven years later. The survivors have regrouped and formed a theatre company performing old episodes of "The Simpsons." They are seen in rehearsal where we discover more about the world they have helped remake. Act Three takes place 82 years after the initial disaster and includes a full musical performance of an episode of "The Simpsons."

"The set evolves in three acts," Verdugo explained. "The various locations or set elements evolve or progress accordingly, on a given trajectory, within the life of this particular theatre company over the years. There are a few iconographic elements directly referencing 'The Simpsons.' Over time, however, their cloudy images are based on word of mouth alone.

"Linked to a previous generation's lost technology, 'The Simpsons' becomes a product of history," he added. "That history gets retold in the form of a musical 82 years later. Of course, with time comes change."

The play is not a recreation of "The Simpsons," but rather it is a series of visual snapshots and remembrances. The play is reflective of the values and pop-cultural references commonly shared within that generation's collective memories, Verdugo said.

"I wanted the design to reflect the point-of-view of this small collective of players," he said, adding he hopes audience members will remember the boat painting on the wall of the Simpson home that he designed for the set.

"The characters in this play create an edgy coping mechanism in order to sublimate the darker underbelly of their new post-apocalyptic reality," Verdugo said. "That coping mechanism comes in the form of a reformulated episode of 'The Simpsons.'

"Their play (the musical) compelled me to be somewhat uplifted - to allow playful madness to help shape and/or normalize an otherwise desperate situation."

"Mr. Burns, a post-electric play" is not appropriate for young children.

The play will be presented at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, Nov. 7 through 11, in W.M. Turner Auditorium in the Griffith Fine Arts Building, 2222 Alumni Drive, on the SFA campus.

Single tickets are $15 for adult, $10 for senior and $7.50 for student/youth. For tickets or more information, call the SFA Fine Arts Box Office at (936) 468-6407 or visit http://www.theatre.sfasu.edu/.