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'Twilight Zone,' in Living Color

Two episodes from the classic black-and-white TV series are debuting on the Southern California stage

June 09, 2002|MIKE BOEHM

Walter Koenig's love of theater has beamed him into a backyard in North Hollywood. Jumbo jets roar in the evening sky, sometimes drowning his mild, reedy voice as he coaches 13 actors through a rehearsal on the lawn.

The man who played Ensign Chekov on "Star Trek" is on a mission to go where no Los Angeles stage director has gone before. Into another dimension. A dimension not only of sight and sound, but of mind. Into, well, "The Twilight Zone."

Rod Serling's beloved black-and-white television series rarely has been done as live theater. Now it is having its Southern California stage premiere. At the helm is the erstwhile navigator of the Starship Enterprise. As a fixture on "Star Trek," Koenig owes his fame to perhaps the only tube-spawned science-fiction/fantasy franchise that has proven hardier and more omnipresent than "The Twilight Zone." But Koenig also is a veteran stage actor and director who has enjoyed good reviews in both capacities.

He has his work cut out for him now.

"The Twilight Zone" will premiere as a late-night attraction during the next four weekends at the Circle Theatre, a 90-seat house in North Hollywood's El Portal Center for the Arts. The scripts to be played are "The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street" and "The Odyssey of Flight 33," both from the original series that ran on CBS from 1959 to 1964.

Suspending disbelief is crucial for sci-fi productions.

In this case, audiences must be induced to believe that a 14-foot-tall, light green brontosaurus made of plaster and wood and a 6-foot alligator with its jaws agape are not really there. They don't belong in "The Twilight Zone"; they're the main set pieces for the theater's concurrently running prime-time attraction, "Criminal Minds," which concerns escaped convicts biding their time at a deserted miniature-golf course in Florida.

Koenig's solution will be to boldly go where he, at least, has never gone before. He plans to dispense with props and scenery--the usual vestiges of stage realism--and let the actors pantomime all of the action, whether it is piloting a desperately lost passenger airplane ("Flight 33") or raising a shotgun to fend off the night terrors that suddenly take hold of a placid, suburban neighborhood ("Maple Street").

"I've never tried this before, and I don't know if this is going to work," Koenig, 65, says over a late-morning snack of date-nut bread and decaf ice coffee at a diner in Studio City. If it does, people will ignore the giant critters that belong to another play. "You use that old formula: the more you believe in it, the more the audience is gonna believe in it."

With "Criminal Minds" claiming dibs at El Portal, Koenig and cast adjourn on a recent evening to the home of one of the "Twilight Zone" actors. There, in the backyard, with loose-fitting blue jeans and a black "Macbeth" T-shirt on his small, slender torso and a New York Yankees cap on his head--they've been his team since 1947--he takes up the task of helping his players become believers who will not need props and a set to be believed.

Koenig talks about how, through movement alone, the actors can portray a mob as a single body or organism beginning to implode under the weight of its own fear. "I want a sense of the stage constantly moving," he tells them. "People sizing each other up--and they dare not turn their backs on each other."

"Maple Street," for Koenig, holds discomfiting echoes of Payson Avenue, the upper Manhattan street where he grew up. His father, a Lithuanian Jewish immigrant, was an avowed Communist, although his living came from that most capitalistic of pursuits, the buying and selling of assorted dry goods and machinery. As Joseph McCarthy hunted for Communists and Ethel and Julius Rosenberg died in the electric chair as Soviet spies, fear took hold in the Koenig household. It didn't help that threatening notes were appearing in the family's mailbox.

"I couldn't avoid a pervasive anxiety that at times immobilized me....There was no one I felt I could trust," Koenig recalled in his 1997 autobiography, "Warped Factors: A Neurotic's Guide to the Universe."

Fear--of terrorists, not Communists--is again a backdrop to everyday American life.

"That is perhaps why I chose the ['Maple Street'] episode," Koenig says. "It's about fear and what it leads to, the hate and the prejudice and ultimately the destruction."

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