Meaningless entertainment, on the other hand, is actually really hard

Hosted by

This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA Theater for KCRW.

We're in the forest around a glowing campfire. It's night. Something terrible has happened, like national emergency terrible, something to do with power plants and radiation. It's bad. So to keep a grip on some kind of sanity, we’re sitting around the fire while folks try to retell an episode of The Simpsons from memory.

Remember memory? From before smart phones?

Because of the tragedy there's no power, so this group of folks is cobbling the episode together, trying to put the pieces in place. It's charming, it's funny -- until suddenly they hear a rustling in the bushes and everyone pulls their guns.

That's the opening of Mr. Burns, a post-electric play by Anne Washburn and that dynamic between charming, maybe meaningless, fun and imminent danger is the secret to its success.

The play is a remarkable two-and-a-half-hour journey that carries its audience across three theaters, 75 years and almost as many performance styles. The company, Sacred Fools, has thrown everything they've got behind the production transforming their three theater spaces into an immersive funhouse of sorts to house the production's three separate acts which are so stylistically different that were it not for the post-apocalyptic Simpsons revering through-line they could easily be three separate plays.

Act One happens in that dimly lit forest maybe a few months after the disaster. Act Two seven years later and the final act a full 75 years after the collapse of civilization -- or at least electric civilization.

Ms. Washburn's play is a complicated allegory that weaves pop culture references into an alternately funny and chilling tale. It's one of those plays that allow viewers to read into it their own personal take. For the diehard Simpsons fan, it's sort of a piece of fan fiction. For those who fear the world is about to end and our institutions are crumbling, it's a cautionary if comic tale. For theater people, it's an ode to the complicated reasons we gather in dark rooms to tell stories.

Why do tribes, of all types, gather to hear the ancient tales? Why do we choose to re-enact the sacred, and the profane, through these elaborate rituals?

One way to read, or watch, Ms. Washburn's play is as a journey backward through theater history: beginning in that forest with naturalism, travelling next door in Act Two for variety-show-presentational-comedy, and ending in a foot-lighted vaudeville theater for something loosely akin to commedia dell'arte meets Gilbert and Sullivan.

Part of me wishes this journey had been a little more considered with a third act payoff more profound. But that's not this play, and in some ways it shouldn't be. One of the actors says as much in Act Two:

"Meaning is everywhere. We get Meaning for free, whether we like it or not. Meaningless Entertainment, on the other hand, is actually really hard."

And she's right. But there's more to Mr. Burns, a post-electric play than meaningless entertainment. Here's to Sacred Fools for committing so completely to a big play. And while you might find Act Three a little confounding, it's still definitely worth the trip. And do yourself a favor, watch The Simpsons' Cape Feare episode before you go.

Mr. Burns, a post-electric play closes at Sacred Fools on December 9.

For info on the show and to subscribe to the weekly KCRW theater newsletter, check out

This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA Theater for KCRW.

Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes with an intermission.

Photo: (L-R) Tegan Ashton Cohan, Eric Curtis Johnson and Scott Golden in Mr. Burns, a post-electric play (Jessica Sherman Photography)