Post-Apocalyptic Simpsons 

A chat with director Courtney Sale about the newest play at the Phoenix

click to enlarge BEN ROSE
  • Ben Rose

Post-apocalypse tales are hot right now, but they’re nothing new. Mary Shelley, author of Frankenstein wrote the first post-apocalyptic novel, The Last Man, in 1826. She probably didn’t realize she was laying the groundwork for a theme that would produce H.G. Wells' War of the Worlds, Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, Alan Martin and Jamie Hewlett’s Tank Girl, and, of course, all the incarnations of Mad Max.

These stories of survival reveal the anxiety of culture surrounding them. World War II happened, and stories were about nuclear destruction. We went to the moon, and aliens started showing up. Artificial intelligence got closer to reality than science fiction, and The Terminator and The Matrix happened. We realized that we were wrecking the planet, and we get The Day After Tomorrow and Ursula K. LeGuin’s Always Coming Home.

So what does it say about Indy that the Phoenix Theater is getting ready to stage Burns: A Post-Electric Play, Anne Washburn’s play that spans decades in a post-disaster world? Director Courtney Sale shed some light on the production in a phone conversation with me last week. Before we get to that, let me give you some background. Mr. Burns tells and re-tells, over a course of 75 years, the infamous 1993 Simpsons episode "Cape Feare." You know, the one where Sideshow Bob steps on a rake? That episode is based on the 1991 film Cape Fear, which was a re-do of the 1962 movie, which was actually based on the 1957 novel The Executioners. Got it? Good.

Emma Hudelson/NUVO: Why did you pick this play?

Courtney Sale: It was a matchmaking process. Bryan Fonseca [producing director of Phoenix Theater], had talked about me potentially working there, and he mentioned Mr. Burns. I had been following the play since Playwright’s Horizons [a New York City production in 2013]. I was super excited, but full disclaimer: I am not a huge Simpsons aficionado. That’s actually been an asset. A misconception might be that you need to know a ton about the Simpsons going into it, but it’s one of the least important parts. [Anne Washburn] could have selected Cheers or Night Court, or anything like that. It’s more about the storytelling than the episode.

NUVO: So storytelling is a central theme. Why do you think storytelling is an important part of the American psyche, especially in the face of disaster?

Sale: Something I bring into the room every day when we’re in rehearsal is: What do we cling to? What do we hold on to? What are the things that make us feel safe? That form our identity? Our relationships? What the play is saying is that the act of creating is the thing that will never go away.

It’s how we learn, it’s how we examine, it’s how we share experience. The beginning of the play is very purposely set around a campfire. That primal “where we began,” and how we make up stories about our world. It’s about driving us into one another, and that we aren’t alone.

It’s truly ensemble. The play is not interested in character histories, or what happened before. It’s not steeped in character psyche. It’s about what a group of people do in a set of circumstances This isn’t a play that is trying to mimic or spoof. It’s about the origin and evolution of story. It unlocks some pretty big questions and ideas.

NUVO: It sounds like you had to cast it differently than you would a play that, like most productions, relies on characters. How did the casting work?

Sale: Everyone in this play has to have this survival instinct, a sort of toughness. Characters are backpacking and traveling in places where there are no other people and limited resources. These are people who have figured out something about the world and how to take care of themselves. They’re pretty nimble. And in some cases, they’ve helped each other.

In casting some plays, you’re looking for a very beautiful picture, like a symmetrical height ratio or something. What I like about this is that we have bodies and ages represented from across the human palette. That feels so right for this play. There’s not one particular age group or gender that has figured out how to navigate this world. That’s one of the pieces that is so important. It’s allowed for some really interesting casting configurations.

NUVO: What was it like trying recreate characters as iconic as The Simpsons on stage?

Sale: We’ve been strategic about certain moments when they happen. If we don’t hit those moments, I’m not doing my job.

I watched the [“Cape Feare”] episode about a year ago and then didn’t watch it again. The characters are using their working knowledge of the episode, and I thought it would be wise to mirror that in terms of how I looked at the play. We don’t get to practice that a lot. Everything’s easily google-able these days.

This way, I’m not beholden to anything except the things that leave impressions, like [Sideshow Bob] getting hit in the face with that rake. Those things that have impact are sprinkled throughout, and they’re not what we lead with. They’re also not performed tongue in cheek.

NUVO: Post-apocalyptic narratives reveal cultural anxieties of the time. What cultural anxiety do you think is being revealed by Mr. Burns?

Sale: Every time I make a play, I try to create an environment that is an amplification of what I want to see in the world. A room that is radical, and kind, and feminist. I think this play is asking whether the work that we’re doing today is going to push forward and be meaningful? Is what we make now still going to be useful in 75 years?

Big questions and end of the world aside, this show is very funny. There’s a lot of joy in it.

Mariel Greenlee, who choreographed the third act, agrees with that statement. “You will love it and laugh!”

I sat in on a few minutes of tech rehearsal to get a sense of the production. There was indeed a lot of laughter. What really amazed me was the level of cooperation. When a transition wasn’t working, director, cast and crew worked together to find a solution. It was equal-opportunity problem-solving. That particular solution happened to involve a Gilbert & Sullivan score, whose work appears throughout the play.

“That’s it!” Sale exclaimed, “Gilbert & Sullivan is going to save us!”

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