2017 is shaping up to be a year of wild theatrics at Belvoir. Two of the reasons why? Mr Burns and Hir. The former is a mash-up of The Simpsons, post-apocalyptic tales and origin myths; and the latter is an explosive family comedy that cranks the dysfunction up a notch… or ten. They’re both big, bold and brilliant new American works, which have earned rave reviews from critics – and now you can see them at Belvoir.
You don’t need to be a devoted Simpsons fan to enjoy Anne Washburn’s darkly comic and wonderfully theatrical Mr Burns, which takes Springfield as its starting point and spins a tale about pop culture, myth-making and the old art of storytelling. The curtains lift on a United States near collapse – a catastrophic nuclear-plant failure has destroyed the country and its electrical grid. After the disaster, a group of survivors gather around a campfire and pass the time by trying to recreate an episode from The Simpsons. Seven years later, the group has formed a motley theatre company performing Simpsons episodes; and 75 years on, The Simpsons has assumed mythic proportions – the extravagant third act has to be seen to be believed. Watching the story unspool, we can’t help but reflect: what will be remembered when society crumbles? What art will endure? In Washburn’s world, the answer is Bart Simpson.
Critics were taken by the sheer ambition and originality of the piece. The New York Times deemed the play “downright brilliant”, claiming that it’s “arrived to leave you dizzy with the scope and dazzle of its ideas”; while The New York Post said this “bizarre, funny, bleak, wonderful show is even better than its hype.”
Anne Washburn, the scribe behind Mr Burns, has been deemed by The Guardian as “one of the most formally experimental and stylistically innovative writers of her generation.” Washburn’s plays are remarkably varied, ranging from a musical adaptation of Euripides’ Greek tragedy Orestes to a droll feminist epic titled The Ladies. There are, however, common threads in Washburn’s work – a willingness to break the rules when it comes to genre and structure, and also an interest in how, why and when stories are told. This theme is very much at the heart of Mr Burns.
The inspiration for the play can be traced back to the events of September 11 in 2001 when Washburn was residing in New York. “We were convinced that the city would come under some other attack, so we were thinking about things in a very drastic way,” Washburn has said about the context from which the play originated. “As I was pondering the end of civilization, I imagined that in the midst of a catastrophe, people would tell stories if they had any down time. I was interested in which stories would be told.”
There’s much to unpack in Mr Burns, from its commentary on the corrupting influences of capitalism to the choice of The Simpsons as the surviving vestige of today’s pop culture. At its heart, however, Washburn sees Mr Burns as an exploration – or perhaps, a celebration – of our need to tell stories, and how these stories are reshaped in the process. “Our culture – national, family, peer, personal – is defined, not so much by what has happened to us, but by how we remember it, and the story we create from that memory,” Washburn has said in her note about the play. “And since we don’t really create stories from the air – since all stories, no matter how fanciful, are in some way constructed from our experiences, real or imagined – all storytelling is a remaking of our past in order to create our future.”
Among its many layers and the many spectacular forms it takes, Mr Burns is also a touching tribute to theatre, a home to play and imagination and storytelling. As The New York Times puts it: “Mr Burns makes a case for theatre as the most glorious and durable storyteller of all.”
Also on the bill for 2017 is Hir, Taylor Mac’s striking and subversive work about a family in radical transition, which whipped audiences and critics into a frenzy. The New York Times perhaps put it best when they posited that you may think you’ve seen just about every variation of the dysfunctional family story, but “unless you’ve seen Hir, the sensational — in all senses of the word — play by Taylor Mac, you cannot consider yourself an authority on this ever-enduring genre of American theatre.”
With his work running the gamut from performance art to drag, music to playwriting, Taylor Mac (who prefers to go by the pronoun “judy”) is a revelatory talent, constantly pushing – and redefining – the boundaries. In their recent profile on Mac, The New York Times described him as “both a throwback to an era when artists prided themselves on being outsiders challenging the establishment, and an ideal avatar of current cut-and-paste aesthetics. Queer in pretty much every sense of the word, he has emerged as a high priest of nonconformity with a devoted congregation of the disenfranchised, as well as a circus ringleader who wants everyone, even the frat boy, to find the freak within.”
If you need any proof of Mac’s radical talent, look no further than his latest work. He’s currently enjoying stellar reviews for A 24-Decade History of Popular Music, an extraordinary epic that aims to chart the past 240 years of popular music in the United States via 246 songs performed in 24 straight hours. It’s an all-day, all-night extravaganza complete with acrobats, burlesque performers, puppets, and a marching band. Suffice to say, Mac is an artist who approaches theatre with absolute abandon. While the anarchic kitchen sink drama of Hir may seem like a slight departure for this artist, make no mistake – it’s packed with all the ambition and audaciousness that a Taylor Mac work is known for.
Operating in a world of “absurd realism” as Mac puts it, Hir tells the story of a suburban family in which a young marine, Isaac, returns home from the war to take care of his father, Arnold, who has recently suffered a stroke. However, even the horrors of the battlefield haven’t prepared him for what he’ll find at home. There, he finds his newly transgender brother Max, and his newly liberated mother Paige, both finally free from the domineering clutches of Arnold, who has been dosed with estrogen and dressed in frilly nightgowns. What ensues is a hilarious, outrageous and poignant struggle to create a new world order – and deal with the fallout.
Part of that fallout is a masculinity crisis – Arnold is a formerly abusive patriarch turned stroke victim and Isaac is a damaged war veteran desperately craving the familiar, male-dominated order that previously ruled his home. “They’re two people who tried to run their environments using the traditions they’d been given, failed violently, and can’t be allowed to be in charge any longer,” Mac has written in a note about the play. “But two people who are in the world regardless. Paige, the matriarch of the family, and Max, the youngest sibling (who is transgender and has begun to use the third-sex pronoun “hir” in place of her or him), believe they’re on the verge of freeing themselves. They’ve fought back and are reaping the benefits. It’s glorious. The problem they come up against in the play is: what to do with the collateral damage?”
Of Hir, The New Yorker said that Mac was one of a number of young playwrights “who have taken their critical shears to the white-male-dominated family living room that was so prevalent onstage and onscreen when they were growing up. By chopping apart that convention, Mac … isn’t so much remaking the world in his own image as he is addressing subjects that remain, remarkably, underplayed on the American stage: what bodies mean and what stories women are allowed to tell or perform.”
Hir is indeed bursting with necessary ideas and questions, not all of which Mac has answers to, but that doesn’t mean progress isn’t being made for the better. Says Mac: “That post-modern messiness doesn’t necessarily mean that the world is worse, you know?”