One of the most revered dramatic series in television history, The Twilight Zone continues to intoxicate viewers 54 years after it debuted on CBS. While still considered the crowning achievement within its TV sci-fi designation, it's also appreciated outside the genre as a consistently engaging adventure of complex characters and layered social commentary. This weekend, the Theater Company of Lafayette will honor Rod Serling's ground-breaking series with Twilight Zone: Live! on Stage! This evening of nostalgic mimickry is adapting three TZ episodes for live performances: "The Passerby," "Monsters Are Due on Maple Street" and "The Chaser."
We recently geeked-out with the director of that last episode, Vonalda Utterback, chatting about gender-bending, cigarettes and the legacy of Rod Serling.
Westword: Whenever you're doing a parody of something, there's always a weird balance of tribute and mockery. In this production, do you ever send up The Twilight Zone?
Vonalda Utterback: Well, we try and mix it up with what episodes we do, and they aren't all comedy -- one is actually a tragedy, The Passersby. Another one we're doing that's very well-known is Monsters Are Due on Maple Street. It's the one where aliens are controlling the whole town, turning lights on and off, cars won't start, and everybody starts turning on each other. With that one you see how easy it is for a mob mentality to start.
There is some parody, and each director has their license to bring that in. But I would never say mockery. We do some gender-bending sometimes for what was then a male-dominated acting world.
And we have a long-standing tradition with bringing in Twinkies, which are an iconic 1950s food. We always try to find some way to bring Twinkies into each episode.
With most Rod Serling stories, and many of the other Twilight Zone writers, there was always an underlying social message to the narrative. Do you try and preserve those -- and do you think the commentaries are still relevant today?
Oh, no question. We do these Twilight Zone productions every year, and each time we're about to put one out there's a story in the media about Rod Serling or The Twilight Zone. It's so popular.
While there are so many fans of the show today, there are even more who are completely unfamiliar with it. Do you think they'd get anything out of coming to this production?
Oh, absolutely. The message is there. We keep all of Rod Serling's lines in there, like his famous intros. The show starts with the spotlight opening up on him, and then the "You unlock this door with the key of imagination." And then his commentary at the end sums up the message, in case you didn't get it.
In almost every single frame of Rod Serling on that show, he's got a cigarette in his hand. Will your Rod Serling be smoking?
Well, we have fake cigarettes that you can order online, but they're very realistic- looking. Because certainly everyone in the '50s and '60s was a smoker and obviously, Rod Serling was a smoker -- he did die of lung cancer. So we need to keep that aspect, even though we're not promoting smoking in any way. Cigarettes are so nostalgic for that time, so we needed to keep that in.
So are these stories set in 1950s or 't0s America, or do you change the setting?
I've chosen to keep these in the 1950s, and I believe the others have, too. In mine the actors are dressed in black, white and gray, so it looks like you're watching a black and white TV show. We're also doing commercials.
That was going to be my next question. A lot of the Twilight Zone DVDs have kept those commercials in there, and they're all so strange. It was a very different time for advertising.
Those we really have a lot of fun with. For the most part we change those up a lot, except for this Xerox commercial that's so anti-feminist, with this woman in the office making copies for her boss. That one didn't need any kind of change to be just hilarious. I can't believe it was ever aired -- it's so sexist.
That's one of the fascinating things about this production: While the industry surrounding Twilight Zone at the time was so commercial and cheap, the stories that Rod Serling told have this sort of timeless allegory feel to them, like Aesop's Fables or Grimm's Fairy Tales.
Right, I totally agree with that. It's a timeless message. In mine, The Chaser, there are so many moral lessons, like be careful for what you wish for, you might get it. Don't try to force something; in the episode Roger tries to force Lela to love him, so he goes and gets a love potion to make that happen. And the consequences are dire.
Twilight Zone: Live! on Stage! opens at 7:30 p.m., Friday, October 25 and runs through November 16 at the Mary Miller Theater, 300 East Simpson Street in Lafayette; tickets are $10 to $16. For more information, call 720-209-2154 or visit tclstage.com.
Follow me on Twitter at @JosiahMHesse.
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