The art of storytelling in a dystopian setting

Michael J. Hume directs Southern Oregon University’s “Mr. Burns, a Post-Electric Play,” Anne Washburn’s dark musical comedy, now playing in OSF’s Black Swan Theatre. The play envisions a post apocalypse world set in Northern California.

Next year Hume will be in his 26th season at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, with roles in “Romeo and Juliet” and “Sense and Sensibility.” We met downstairs at Mix in Ashland.

EH: How did SOU choose: “Mr. Burns, a Post-Electric Play”?

MJH: SOU wanted to celebrate the art of storytelling. We are doing this play, about people telling the story of The Simpsons, in repertory with Mary Zimmerman’s “The Arabian Nights,” about Scheherazade and a thousand and one tales.

EH: Is the play science fiction?

MJH: It’s dystopian fiction as opposed to science fiction; there’s not much science in the play. It’s about surviving and not uncomfortably. “Mr. Burns” begins with very basic storytelling: Folks sitting around a campfire obsessing about The Simpsons “Cape Feare Episode.” The great irony is that: What if these same people were obsessing about “King Lear” or “Moby Dick,” some great classic piece of literature, as opposed to what some people would call trivial or pop culture? I’m not a huge Simpson’s fanatic, but I am a fan. In terms of social commentary, I think it’s brilliant.

I would argue for The Simpsons that they’re smart. That they are a dysfunctional stupid American family is actually very telling — in terms of who we have become. It becomes a new mythology. We have Simpson’s scenes, we have Simpson’s characters: It’s not “The Simpsons on Ice,” or anything like that. It is human beings talking about The Simpsons and eventually putting on Simpson’s plays to make money. Capitalism is all over this.

This is a morality tale on its most basic level. The Bible is based on stories that were told by word of mouth for generations. People started writing things down, they’ve been translated into so many ancient languages — and that’s what we’ve ended up with.

There’s a Thomas Cahill book, “How The Irish Saved Civilization,” which is essentially about the Dark Ages: Rome had fallen, Greece was no more, and in monasteries in Ireland they were picking up scraps of literature from the classical cultures. And the scribes started copying everything down, which is why so many things survived through the Dark Ages from the classical world. Then there were the Medieval Mystery plays. That’s part of the ecclesiastical chain: Going from spoken tradition to writing tradition, to now acting things out.

We are in scary times. They just are — With the shootings, with the natural world, with the fires in California, with the mess that is Europe, with the mess that is our president. It just feels like a toxic world right now. I know the kids feel it. I think we all wake up with that every day. We’re talking about the end of the world. It’s about everything crashing. It’s how people survive. It’s about what you recycle when nothing is being manufactured anymore.

EH: Is there a message?

MJH: Art will survive. Literature will survive anything. It’s just ironic that it just happens to be The Simpsons. I think that’s why it’s kind of brilliant. Are we saying that we live in an Idiocracy now? If it were “Dante’s Inferno,” that these guys were discussing, it would be a whole different play. It might even take itself a little too seriously.

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