‘Simpsons’ episode drives plot of new play

Throughout mankind’s history, people have been storytellers. Imagine how it will be for us, saturated in pop culture as we are, if the “stories” of television and movies suddenly stop.

In the near future, civilization has collapsed. There are rumors of plagues, radiation zones and endless fires. Survivors keep lists of loved ones and ask each stranger they meet about them. But, above all, the most important thing that must be known is this: What was it that Sideshow Bob said to Bart Simpson in that Cape Fear-inspired episode?

Welcome to the brave new world of “Mr. Burns, a Post-electric Play,” on stage through Sunday at the Phoenix Theatre in downtown Indianapolis.

In a dark forest shortly after an unnamed apocalypse, a band of survivors, played by Eryn Bowser, Paeton Chavis, Paul Collier Hansen, Jen Johansen and Eric J. Olson keep their minds occupied by recounting a favorite “Simpsons” episode. A new stranger, played by Rob Johansen, suddenly joins them. Suspicions fade as he remembers the scenes and dialogue the others forgot. A bond forms.

Years later, Ryan O’Shea joins the group keeping culture alive via stories of fabled Springfield. Human creativity mixes into this scene, adding and modifying lines of the scripts. In the second act, we jump ahead a couple of generations to see what this new storytelling tradition has evolved into.

The play, by Anne Washburn, is an entertaining commentary on our media-addicted culture. It’s interesting to see how humanity comes to value something so inspired by and a parody of other works while discarding and forgetting those things that came before, the things that gave the animated comedies their substance.

Then, to see what today’s reruns become after so many hands have meddled in their portrayal makes one wonder what Shakespeare would think of all the liberties taken with his works today.

This professional cast handles this work expertly, from the fear, confusion and search for connection in the first act to the avant-garde absurdity of the bizarre “Mr. Burns” episode in the second. You do not even need to be familiar with “The Simpsons” (or “Cape Fear” or Gilbert and Sullivan) to follow and enjoy this play, especially considering the end product is likely unlike anything in Simpsons-creator Matt Groening’s wildest dreams.

Find the Phoenix at 749 Park Ave. (corner of Park and St. Clair near Mass. Ave.) in downtown Indy. Call 317-635-7529 or see phoenixtheatre.org.