Chekov in the Twilight Zone
That's Pavel Chekov staging TZ Episodes in a Hollywood Theater

'Twilight Zone,' in Living Color
Two episodes from the classic black-and-white TV series
are debuting on the Southern California stage

LA Times - Sunday, June 9, 2002 - THEATER section


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."

Fantasy was one of Koenig's childhood escapes, and in 1967 he became part of one of the most far-reaching fantasies of all. Pavel Chekov joined the Enterprise crew during the second of the original "Star Trek"'s three seasons. The producers wanted a Russian to complete the show's idealistic vision of a diverse sampling of humanity's best and boldest united--along with the occasional Vulcan--in an enlightened quest of discovery. Preferably a Russian who looked like Davy Jones, the teen heartthrob of "The Monkees." Koenig knew the casting director and fit the bill. He could do the accent--it was how his parents sounded--and he was as cute as a Monkee.

Through the TV series and most of the seven "Star Trek" films that included Chekhov, Koenig was frustrated by his character's lack of dimension--even for a sidekick. He says 1986's "Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home" is where Mr. Chekov finally caught a break and got to be a real person. "That was the greatest fun for me, all I would have wanted for that character."

He does not impugn his calling card--"If I wasn't that person from 'Star Trek,' you probably wouldn't be interviewing me"--but he always has sought other creative outlets. Among them are writing for television and film and playing a recurring role as a bad guy on the 1990s "Star Trek" offshoot, "Babylon 5."

For the last three years, Koenig has played Scrooge in a seasonal production of "A Christmas Carol" in Thousand Oaks; he says the Trekkies eat it up when he does Scrooge's transformation scene at "Star Trek" conventions around the globe. From those conclaves--he says he appears at eight to 10 a year, on average--he reaps "a considerable portion of my income." Koenig will miss the opening weekend of "The Twilight Zone" because he's booked at a convention in Sao Paolo, Brazil.

Koenig's other stage credits include playing Tom Sawyer in "The Boys of Autumn," a two-man play in which Mark Twain's boyhood pals, Tom and Huckleberry Finn, meet as old men who haven't seen each other in 50 years. In 1990, a Times reviewer hailed the "vivid and even sublime performances" of Koenig and Mark Lenard, who had played Spock's father on "Star Trek." In 1996, Koenig directed an Actors Alley production of "Three By Tenn," an evening of short plays by Tennessee Williams. The Times review credited him with "insightful staging [that] brings warmth and compassion to characters alienated by their overheightened sensitivity."

The Actors Alley connection brought Koenig into "The Twilight Zone." The venerable troupe, headquartered at El Portal, is now known as the Company Rep, and Judy Levitt, Koenig's wife of 37 years, is a member. Five young actors who are current or former Company Rep members recently spun off their own nonprofit production company, 4 Letter Entertainment. Late last year they sought--and were granted--the rights to stage any of the "Twilight Zone" scripts by Serling, who wrote 92 of the 156 episodes.

 Their goal, says executive producer Tammy Dahlstrom, is to turn "The Twilight Zone" into a late-night franchise--acted by Company Rep members--that will run throughout the year. The payoff, they hope, will be to instill the theatergoing habit in people who otherwise wouldn't have bought a ticket to a play.

"We're pretty guarded with the rights to 'The Twilight Zone,' " CBS spokesman Chris Ender said. "It's very rare. This is an isolated case to help out a local, nonprofit theater."

Andrew Polak, secretary of the Rod Serling Memorial Foundation in Serling's hometown of Binghamton, N.Y., says he gets a couple of e-mails a month from theaters and schools that want to stage episodes of "The Twilight Zone." He directs them to CBS--but denials are routine. The only exception Polak knows of is Theater Schmeater, a nonprofit company in Seattle that has been running "The Twilight Zone" as a late-night attraction since 1994 in a 72-seat converted garage.

Artistic director Sheila Daniels says most of the shows sell out, and that some of the Zoners go on to check out the company's other productions. Years ago, Jonathan Zadok lived in Seattle and was a regular at the "Twilight Zone" nightcaps. Now, as artistic director of 4 Letter Entertainment, he is importing the idea.

Original episodes of "The Twilight Zone" play 20 times a week on cable's Sci Fi Channel; UPN's upcoming fall schedule includes a new incarnation of "The Twilight Zone" as a weekly, hourlong drama on Wednesday nights. Host Forest Whitaker will deliver the on-camera introductions and epilogues that were Serling's trademark.

For Koenig, the Serling monologues are an inviolable part of "The Twilight Zone" experience and will be performed on stage--although not as impersonations of "The Twilight Zone" creator, who died in 1975. Otherwise, the director says, his goal is to re-imagine the stories as fresh pieces for the stage.

"Trying to replicate the television series would be an egregious mistake. It's a very minor concern that the audience might be anticipating certain kinds of performances based on their memory of the show. The fun of this is giving it its own life that stands apart."