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theatre review

Don't fear for the demise of Mr. Burns with the departure of voice artist Harry Shearer from The Simpsons.

The greedy nuclear-plant owner will live on after Shearer leaves – indeed he'll survive after the cartoon goes off the air. He might even survive the apocalypse.

That's the thesis of Anne Washburn's exciting new play Mr. Burns, getting an entertainingly immersive production from Toronto's Outside the March Theatre Company.

Over the course of three acts, set over 82 years, Washburn shows how popular culture is like radioactive material – how it only ever disappears very slowly, and how it is absorbed and mutates.

In the first act of Mitchell Cushman and Simon Bloom's funny and suspenseful production, we meet a group of survivors from a disaster of some sort that has wiped out the electrical grid in the United States – and 99 per cent of the population. As they sit around a campfire, guns ready to draw on any stranger, Matt (Colin Doyle) tries to entertain them by retelling the Cape Feare episode of The Simpsons – you know, the one where Sideshow Bob steps on rake after rake after rake?

If you've ever wondered what the characters on The Walking Dead do in their downtime, this seems as plausible a possibility as any. Indeed, remembering favourite Simpsons bits is a pleasant respite from rehashing horror stories of the nuclear meltdowns that happened when the electricity stopped – as Maria (a strong Katherine Cullen) does when a newcomer (Damien Atkins) arrives at the camp.

Flash-forward seven years – and this group has formed a troupe of travelling players presenting a revue called Must C TV to other survivors nostalgic for the days of Netflix.

The Cape Feare episode is now fully dramatized with costumes and props. But the troupe also performs commercials – finding a balance between tantalizing and torturing audiences with memories of Diet Coke, Chablis and hot running water.

They also perform a medley of pop songs from Lady Gaga to Kanye West – ones that are hilarious at first, but become bittersweet and strange. Does Britney Spears's Toxic really contain deep messages about the approaching environmental apocalypse, or are they just reading into it differently now? (This is a question that echoes throughout the play – how much of the meaning of culture is what we bring to it as listeners and viewers?)

In its final act, Washburn's play warps 75 years into the future, where performing The Simpsons has now become a high art. We get to watch a snippet of Cape Feare as operatic spectacle, where Sideshow Bob has somehow morphed into Mr. Burns.

It is truly ridiculous, but also poignant. Cape Feare, in its mutated form, has become a way to remember the dead of a tragedy long ago. Playing Bart in a mask, Rielle Braid is surprisingly moving – and sings wonderfully, in a cast where the uneven voices are the only disappointment. (The score is by Michael Friedman.)

Washburn's script shows how culture moves registers – as Shakespeare has, as Gilbert and Sullivan (sampled in the Cape Feare episode) have. And how serious themes are embedded into even the entertainment most dismissed as frivolous; how fiction helps us talk about difficult fact.

Kudos to designers Ken Mackenzie, Lindsay Junkin, Marcus Jamin, Evan Harkai – and especially lighting designer Nick Blais, who must illuminate the entire proceedings with battery-powered devices.

There have been a number of plays looking at the environmental disasters to come and how we will survive with media and the Internet – Will Eno's Tragedy: a tragedy depicts an absurdist apocalypse through the lens of a group of increasingly irrelevant newscasters; Yvette Nolan's The Unplugging shows how the aboriginal tradition of oral transmission of stories and knowledge will be all we have when Google goes down.

Mr. Burns really takes the apocalyptic spirit of the times – whether overblown or not – and creates the first great play out of it. It feels like a play that could only be written now. Whether its Washburn or Sarah Ruhl or Annie Baker, I'm increasingly coming to the realization that the really interesting play writing, that which is moving the form forward, is coming out of the United States these days.

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