‘Mr. Burns: A Post-Electric Play’ uses ‘The Simpsons’ to explore power of storytelling

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After more than a year of trying, Theater Wit artistic director Jeremy Wechsler finally succeeded in obtaining a copy of the full script for Anne Washburn’s “Mr. Burns: A Post-Electric Play.” Upon reading its wholly unexpected third act, he “shouted aloud in shock.”

“I remember sitting in my apartment and saying, ‘What the f—?!’ I was just so startled by what happened,” Wechsler says.

And, no, he didn’t reveal what happens.

Soon after that experience, he made a call and eagerly offered to stage the music-and-pop-culture-laced, post-apocalyptic dramedy in Chicago, where it’s now in previews and opens Jan. 19. Whether critics here will be as effusive as the New York Times’ Ben Brantley, who called the work “brilliant” and “intoxicating” in a review last fall, remains to be seen.

MR. BURNS: A POST-ELECTRIC PLAY When: Through March 1 Where: Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont Tickets: $25-$70 Info: Theaterwit.org; (773)975-8150

“One of the challenges that I have here is finding plays where you can’t figure out what will happen,” Wechsler says, still proffering no details about what happens. “It’s the sense of surprise, the sense of unexpectedness. And that’s one of the big things I try to find in work, because I think our audiences are really narratively sophisticated. They’re really smart about story and they like playing the game. … So when I can find a script where I literally can’t tell what’s going to happen next, that is super compelling to me, because I think that surprise is a wonder and a delight in this day and age.”

Named after the diabolical gazillionaire overlord of Springfield on Fox’s long-running animated hit “The Simpsons” and centered in part on the show’s famous “Cape Fear” parody episode (titled “Cape Feare”) starring Kelsey Grammer as highbrow buffoon Sideshow Bob, “Mr. Burns” began rattling around in Washburn’s brain a decade or so ago. But she never thought her tale about survivors of a nuclear catastrophe and the power of storytelling would come to fruition.

“It just was this idea that I would be interested in tinkering with and seeing what would happen if you took a TV show and you pushed it past the apocalypse,” she says.

Although she likes “The Simpsons” well enough, it’s merely a vehicle to communicate other, often heavier, truths. So don’t arrive expecting a show-themed love fest or you’ll be sorely disappointed. It’s respectful, yes, but far from a straight homage.

The main reason she chose “The Simpsons” over, say, “Friends” or “Seinfeld,” Washburn says, is its unbeatable ubiquity.

“I wanted something that a lot of people would have very affectionate memories of and remember, and also that people would find diverting and something you could use later on to sell to people as a concept. … It just seemed like, well, [‘The Simpsons’] will work because it’s an immensely popular show and it’s been running umpteen million years. And also because it’s so verbally specific. A fairly large chunk of the population actually has bits memorized, so that if you decimated the population you’d still have a number of people who could pull together an episode.”

So admiring are Wechsler and his cohorts of “Mr. Burns” that Theater Wit is pulling out all the stops to do it right. Besides music, dancing and sword fighting, the $100,000 production (that’s about $30K more than average) includes “completely realized environments” onstage.

“This is a huge leap of faith for us,” Wechsler says

“The only thing I can really compare this to is some sort of crazy, sprawling Shakespeare play that spans decades, because it just kind of has this epic scope about it, which we really had to address.”

And while “Mr. Burns” isn’t about “The Simpsons,” per se, Wechsler hopes the affiliation will lure new patrons.

“It is such an unusually structured and organized script that I think any preconceptions people have about what they will experience when they come to the theater will not be necessarily fulfilled, for good or ill. And it does this without feeling at any point even slightly experimental. It is all straight narrative storytelling. It’s not like there’s a woman on the side speaking to a flower while rain falls on her head. But there’s something fundamentally avant-garde about the way it’s thinking about the form and using all of these standard conventions structured in a slightly different way so the expectation of people who think they know how plays progress will be surprised and people who don’t know how plays progress will also be surprised.”

“It is a trip.”

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