By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca
So a director and an a choreographer go into a Strathcona bar to discuss the apocalypse and The Simpsons.… It happened last week.
Whoa, the end of the world? Now what do we do?
“We’re obsessed ties what will happen next,” says Andrew Ritchie. The musical that opens Thursday in the Fringe’s Westbury Theatre is on that. And curiously — revealingly, perhaps — Mr. Burns, A Post-Electric Play, a collaboration between two leading Edmonton indie theatres, is happening right across the street from another unusually full-bodied three-act two-intermission American “comedy” in which apocalypses figure prominently (Thornton Wilder’s The Skin Of Our Teeth, currently running on the Varscona stage).
“Yup, everyone thinks the world’s gonna end,” says Ritchie, with his usual jaunty good cheer. The director of a starry 10-actor cast in Anne Washburn’s 2013 Mr. Burns, he’s is the artistic director of You Are Here (the contemporary-minded sibling of Thou Art Here, the “site-sympathetic” Shakespeare company he co-founded with Neil Kuefler). His Mr. Burns producing partner is Blarney Productions.
He and choreographer Ainsley Hillyard of Good Women Dance made time after rehearsal last week to hoist a vegan cocktail and chat about the challenging, highly original 2013 musical — ah, and their connection to The Simpsons.
Mr. Burns takes us to a post-nuclear meltdown world in which survivors sustain themselves by sharing memories of their favourite Simpsons episodes, starting in Act I, with the “Cape Feare” episode. Remember that one, where Bart is stalked by the evil Sideshow Bob and the family goes into witness protection? Based on the 1991 movie which remakes the 1962 movie, based on the 1957 novel?
“One piece of art gets transformed into another, and another…” says Ritchie of an evolution that happens in the course of Mr. Burns’s three acts.
Ritchie was, is, a big Simpsons fan. Not not least because he grew up forbidden to watch the show. “My mom thought it was a bad influence on kids — swear words, bad ideas, political satire…. So I’d watch when I wasn’t allowed to, a bad-boy thing to do.” From an archival knowledge of the canon, his own favourite Simpsons episode is “Lemon of Troy,” classic early-period Simpsons (remember? Shelby kids steal Springfield’s ancient and venerable lemon tree).
“It’s hopeful, I guess, in the way that humanity will survive in some fashion,” thinks Hillyard. “We will move on, but the question becomes what will we carry forward? What will be remembered from this time period?” She’s a huge Simpsons devotée too; her favourite episode as a dog lover is “Simpsons Roasting On An Open Fire,” a Christmas special in which they rescue Santa’s Little Helper from the racetrack. She also loves the episode in which Lisa is mentored on the saxophone by an old jazz master.
Ritchie and Hillyard report that Mhairi Berg, their musical director/ composer, has a special attachment to “A Streetcar Named Marge” (my personal fave, too) in which the Tennessee Williams classic is revived as a razzmatazz musical. They’re struck by the thought that all their favourites riff directly off works of art, a Simpsons signature.
Two years ago when Ritchie flipped Hillyard the script, she was reading Station Eleven, a post-apocalyptic novel by Emily St. John Mandel in which “a group of travelling artists perform in makeshift cities in a Mad Max-ian world,” as she put it. “My new year’s resolution was to read only books by women, and I read only feminist science fiction….” There were uncanny parallels with Mr. Burns. It was a sign.
“Is pop culture what we derive our meaning, our ethics, our morality, from?” says Ritchie of a play whose three acts happen, successively just after the apocalypse, seven years, then 75 years later. “Pop culture is a time capsule,” says Hillyard. “But you don’t get to decide what to put in…. That decision is for the masses to make.” The Simpsons, says Ritchie, becomes the oral tradition, evolving, transforming over time.
Hillyard has had the fun — “so much fun, ridiculous fun!” — finding a through-line of choreography that pulls from pop culture dance moves “to create an entire movement language.” The twist, the macarena, line dancing … . we all know how to do them, maybe not well, but we know….”
In each act, a different world emerges, with its own theatrical, musical, choreographic style as Ritchie explains. In Act I, right after the end of the world, “in a forest in the middle of America, strangers who have lost everything — relationships, jobs, money is completely pointless — are trying to figure out how to survive together.” What do they share? The Simpsons. In Act II, seven years later, a theatre troupe travels around doing live Simpsons episodes. In Act III, performed in half-masks, those Simpsons episodes have become high art, as Ritchie explains.
“We’re really working on three different plays,” says Ritchie. He changes the configuration of the audience between each act; “the audience moves physically from one space to the next.” He laughs, “it wouldn’t be an Andrew Ritchie show, I guess, unless I make you move,” he laughs, thinking of his gravitation to perambulatory experiences (like Shakespeare’s Will in a graveyard or Much Ado About Nothing in an old house). The stage configuration changes to match, from immersive theatre-in-the-round to a thrust arrangement to the formality of a proscenium.
Meanwhile, stories get told and re-told, morphing as they go. Says Ritchie, “storytelling will continue to exist, as an integral part of humanity, the way we connect with each.”
Mr. Burns, A Post-Electric Play
Fringe Theatre Adventures Spotlight Series
Theatre: You Are Here and Blarney Productions
Written by: Anne Washburn
Directed by: Andrew Ritchie
Starring: Nadien Chu, Murray Farnell, Kristi Hansen, Patrick Howarth, Paula Humby, Madelaine Knight, Jenny McKillop, Elena Porter, Rebecca Sadowski, Jake Tkaczyk
Where: Westbury Theatre, ATB Financial Arts Barns, 10330 84 Ave.
Running: Thursday through Dec. 7
Tickets: 780-409-1910, fringetheatre.ca