The Annex Theater welcomes Baltimore to the Twilight Zone
Published: October 24, 2012
Over the summer, Annex Theater artistic director Evan Moritz was in the Fifth Dimension—known more colloquially as the fifth floor—of the H and H Building, downtown, talking with some friends about a theme for a fall show that would allow several writers to address a wide range of issues.
Gina Denton, a writer who lives in that particular dimension, was cooking in the kitchen at the time and, while listening to the conversation, had a revelation.
“I was thinking, Halloween, this is right up my alley,” says the 30-something Denton, who has dabbled in witchcraft. “Let’s do The Twilight Zone!”
To Moritz, a tall, skinny guy who came to Baltimore about five years ago to help kickstart the marriage between hipsters, DIYers, and theater, it was a perfect idea.
Rod Serling, who died in 1975, is best known as father of The Twilight Zone, but he first made his reputation with early made-for-television films like Requiem for a Heavyweight and Patterns. His decision to come up with his own series was partly prompted by the fact that the themes he pursued—racism and sexism among them—were too hot for advertisers to handle. The Twilight Zone, safely sheltered in the sci-fi niche, gave him the freedom to pursue these topics in a more oblique way.
“So, The Twilight Zone became his way of addressing issues,” Moritz says. With that idea in mind, Moritz turned to seven Baltimore writers—Denton among them—and asked them each to come up with a 10-minute sketch, all of which will be produced from Oct. 19-21 at the H and H, and Oct. 26-28 at St. Mark’s Church as part of the Annex Theater’s Baltimore Twilight Zone Play Festival.
While clearly inspired by the television auteur, Moritz insists that the Annex production is not a tribute to Serling or an attempt to recreate his work. Instead, the Annex is using some of the conventions of the show—the monologues before and after the drama, the plot twists—as a creative prompt for the vastly different Baltimore playwrights. “We’re trying to be like, ‘Where’s that place where we can experiment with it and make it our own?’”
It may be the perfect time to re-examine the classic show. The original series held the nation’s tube-fed imagination in sway for five years in the late ’50s/early ’60s and developed a new fan base with serial reruns throughout the ’70s and early ’80s. Now, millennials like Moritz are taking a new look at his work on the internet.
“I sort of think of Serling as passing through the media,” Moritz says. “You know, starting out with radio plays. By the time he got to television, he had carved out his own niche. That generation of television writers—who came from the stage—use single box sets, and they depended more on characters than effects.”
Moritz reflects on Serling during a recent rehearsal of the seven sketches at the H and H building. In the middle of the set, there is a dark mirror with a large pentagram painted on the back.
He sits at the light board in the center of the room, surrounded by an intricate tapestry of electrical wiring. He reads the opening monologue, Serling-style. Three teenage girls are standing around the mirror. “Sisters of the pale wolf moon,” the central girl intones, to no effect. They move to a Ouija board, which manages to call out with a voice from the other side, leading them through a new incantation: “Doodle doodle da da wobblety wum, a 10-pound watermelon drum.”
From here, the sketch (Denton’s own) progresses into more bizarre territory, and the closing monologue, delivered in Serling’s basso profundo, says it all: “You never know who will be on the other end in the Twilight Zone.”
The next sketch, “Invaders,” is a wordless piece by Cordelia Snow and Jamie Hacker in which a woman deals with an invisible invading force grabbing at her broom as she tries to sweep her kitchen. As actress Pilar Diaz moves from one side of the stage to the next, Moritz breaks in occasionally, trying to coordinate lighting with the nightmare being played out onstage.
“Is she, um . . . should there be arms coming around the wall? And arms coming around the other wall? And they grab her and grab her and hold her tight and it . . . it slices her?” he asks Diaz and director Sarah Heiderman, who work out the details with him.
The third sketch is really the closest we get to Serling himself. Written and acted by Tara Fournier, it’s a compressed—and slightly saltier—reprise of The Twilight Zone’s 1959 premier, a spooky half-hour nightmare scenario entitled “Where is Everybody?” It features a man in a jumpsuit who finds himself in recently deserted diner, with no company except for a large, stuffed bear. He has five bucks, and he’s hungry but no one is around. As in most of The Twilight Zone episodes, there’s an important twist coming up, and while Fournier doesn’t want to reveal it here, she notes that the entire episode is available online.
Veteran local playwright Rich Espey, who also works with Single Carrot Theatre, tried his hand at one of the plays even though he had little or no past acquaintance with the Zone. But some online perusal led him to write a sketch featuring a pair of glasses that seduces and torments people with the ability to peer into the future.
Three other sketches (by Chuck Green, Alex Gilwit, and John Bowman) were rehearsed the night before, and by 10:15 P.M., the evening is over. Each 10-minute piece has had two or three run-throughs, many of the technical glitches have been erased, and the actors start to head home, which, in some cases, is in the same building as the stage.
As Moritz busies himself locking doors and putting final touches on the scenery, he reveals a Serling-worthy twist: If all goes well, this is going to be the Annex’s final weekend at H and H. The next production, based on Philip K. Dick’s Ubik, will open in December at the Annex’s new venue—the former New York Fried Chicken House at 1 W. North Ave. The one-time fast food venue was leased by the nonprofit Station North Entertainment District, Inc., and is currently being transformed by Ziger Snead architects into a theater/art gallery. The Annex and Station North will rent the space at $1 dollar a month, says Moritz.
There’s something fitting about Philip K. Dick in a long-abandoned chicken joint, but heading out onto the deserted sidewalk of West Franklin Street, where the skeletal remains of West Baltimore’s former retail hub are as empty as the diner in “Where is Everybody?” it’s hard to deny that the H and H building is be the perfect place to be welcomed to the Twilight Zone.
The Twilight Zone Play Festival will be performed Oct. 26-28 at St. Mark’s Church at 1900 St. Paul St. For more information, visit baltimoreannextheater.org
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