By Alex Owens | Theater Review
Don’t have a cow, but the Helix drama department is telling the story of “The Simpsons” — sort of.
The Highland Players’ latest production is “Mr. Burns: A Post-Electric Play,” an experimental work running Nov. 7–10 and Nov. 16–17 that examines how people might keep modern culture alive after an apocalypse.
The play first concerns a group of people in the future who, in the absence of television or streaming video, keep “The Simpsons” alive by acting out the “Cape Fear” episode for their fellow humans.
It’s an ambitious play, one that requires the school’s two theaters: The smaller black box theater for the intimate parts of the show and the big theater for a third act for a retelling of the episode as a huge pageant complete with musical numbers and a Greek chorus featuring performers in masks depicting various “Simpsons” characters.
“The first two acts feel small so that works with the smaller space, but in the third act, the big theater represents a theater built just for the purpose of re-enacting ‘The Simpsons,’” explained drama teacher Paul Reams, who is directing the production.
This is not just a re-enactment of “Cape Feare,” a classic “Simpsons” episode from 1993, as much as a literal depiction of that old children’s game telephone.
“The first act takes place within months of the apocalypse, so people remember the parts to the plot well, but we see how the details change over the years. For instance, eventually Mr. Burns becomes the villain of the piece where it was Sideshow Bob in the original episode.”
Reams said the details of the story aren’t as important as the big picture.
“There’s this sense that stories matter and cultural touchstones like ‘The Simpsons’ bind people together,” Reams said. “The world where this takes place is scary, but people find comfort in what is supposed to be mindless entertainment.”
Reams said the show itself redefines what might be considered “mindless.” For instance, the Britney Spears hit song “Toxic,” which might seem like a catchy piece of sugar pop to current audiences, is reinterpreted as a tragic ballad of the dangers of nuclear radiation in the post-apocalyptic world where the play is set.
The play itself is not mindless. It’s actually an avant-garde work that has polarized audiences since it debuted in 2012. Reams is happy the school is pushing the boundaries of high school drama.
“It’s definitely experimental,” Reams said. “It’s not ‘Our Town,’ which I think is the most popular play with high school drama departments. ‘Mr. Burns’ feels odd and modern.
“Being a charter school does let us take more risks and I think people are more open to challenging theater.”
For more details and information on tickets, visit bit.ly/2yVTuSn.
—Alex Owens is a freelance writer from La Mesa.