The Big Picture Cinema is in terrible shape. The interior of the east-end Toronto theatre is purplish-blue and plastered with gaudy golden frames; the seating is upholstered with dirty turquoise ribbed velvet; the ceiling paint is peeled off in chunks, revealing off-beige patches.
In short, it looks post-apocalyptic—which is perfect for Mitchell Cushman and Simon Bloom.
“Some spaces have just a ton of potential,” says Bloom, who, along with Cushman, is a co-artistic director of the much-acclaimed Outside the March theatre company.
“If you were house hunting, you’d say, ‘Oh, that house has a lot of character.’ We look for spaces that have a kind of character, that’s going to respond to the work that we’re doing.”
This month, that work is Mr. Burns, a Post-Electric Play.
Mr. Burns debuted in 2012 in Washington, DC, and tells the story of a dystopian theatre troupe that recreates Simpsons episodes after a global catastrophe. The plays transforms The Simpsons ever deeper from pop culture into genuine mythology by its third act, which takes place decades after the first.
“What’s cool about The Simpsons as a cultural icon is that everyone has at least some grounding in the fact that The Simpsons exists,” Cushman says.
“So whether you’ve seen each and every episode or have never seen an episode, I think that ultimately there are things that the show riffs on that have much more to do with the energies of our contemporary society.”
The play’s major conceit is that there is no electricity used at all—everything is gas-lit or battery-powered, all sound effects made in-house. It is, in every way, a dark comedy.
“Mitch and I always like dreaming pretty big about stuff,” Bloom says. “So it’s nice to have a script that can support that.”
This is the second play that Cushman and Bloom have co-directed, and the company’s eighth since its inception in 2009. Almost all their shows have been site-specific—they can’t be picked up and transplanted onto any other stage—and have taken audiences to a kindergarten classroom, a public park, a United church and an actor’s mother’s house.
“When we were thinking about what space a post-apocalyptic Simpsons play would do well in, we sort of felt this place was kind of perfect,” Bloom says.
They use the space well. Actors move fluidly throughout the theatre, down the aisles and up the scaffolding erected onstage. It’s easy to bend the script this way, the directors say, because of how ambiguous and challenging the script is.
One such challenge: the musical numbers. At one point, the actors create a car commercial with only their bodies and voices—their arms as windshield wipers, their voices an a cappella soundtrack.
Later, they run through a kinetic series of pop-hit mashups of the last few decades. After rehearsing one that includes a few lines from Gloria Gaynor’s I Will Survive, Cushman interjected: “As you keep exploring this, any time you mention survival, treat it like a national anthem. Make it something really patriotic, really unironic.”
All this may sound silly, but Cushman and Bloom are aiming for something deeper. On the advice of the playwright, Anne Washburn, they are avoiding easy laughs and keeping the actors serious, even mournful—something they both feel connects them to their Jewish heritage.
“In some ways, this is actually a very Jewish play,” Bloom says. “There’s a lot of honouring people through memory, and also the development of ritual through the act of remembering that reminds me a lot of the Kaddish.”
“It reminds me of being in Yad Vashem and thinking of the way in which the Holocaust is memorialized,” Cushman adds. “It’s about people who recover from trauma. So in that sense it’s universally applicable, but also everyone will see this story through their own lens.”
As for non-electrical lighting, the directors will stop short of bringing menorahs into the mix. But Bloom seemed struck with the thought when it came up in conversation. “I wouldn’t say there’s no menorahs,” he said, inviting the idea. “There might be menorahs.”
Mr.Burns runs at Toronto’s Historic Aztec Theatre through May. www.outsidethemarch.ca