“There is a fifth dimension beyond that which is known to man. It is a dimension as vast as space and as timeless as infinity. It is the middle ground between light and shadow, between science and superstition, and it lies between the pit of man’s fears and the summit of his knowledge. This is the dimension of imagination. It is an area which we call the Twilight Zone.”

Anyone around in the early 1960s can surely recall these words, and the voice of the man speaking them, the legendary Rod Serling, creator of the iconic TV series The Twilight Zone, one which spawned a feature film, a radio series, a comic book, a magazine, and various other spin-offs over the next five decades, including two revival television series and now, in 2012, an evening of hilariously improvised theater which the masters of improvisation known as Impro Theatre have entitled—what else?—Twilight Zone Unscripted.

 Like the company’s other offerings—Tennessee Williams, Jane Austen, Shakespeare, LA Noir, and Sondheim Unscripted—Twilight Zone Unscripted takes a well-known author or genre (or in this case both) and creates a brand spanking new play right in front of the audience’s eyes. Make that four brand spanking new playlets this time round, the better to mimic the original TV series’ half-hour format.

As with their previous improvised gems, the artists of Impro Theatre have done their homework well, making themselves bona fide experts at recreating the elements that made Twilight Zone so unique in its suspenseful mixture of psychological drama and science fiction with a chilling surprise twist.

An audience suggestion is all it takes to launch each of the evening’s four episodes.

 First up, a request for someone to name an item that might have been common in the ‘50s or ‘60s, last night’s response being a bomb shelter.

“She’s a beaut, a real beaut,” is how one of Tom and Maisie’s bridge guests describes their friends’ bomb shelter, while another exclaims in wonder, “I cannot believe how many cans of green beans!”

A knock on the door introduces an unexpected furniture delivery, and though the host insists “I don’t remember ordering any chairs,” one of the delivery men declares, “They’re standard bridge chairs,” to which his partner adds, “Maybe somebody gifted you with a chair.”

Then, in true Serlingesque fashion, we hear our narrator’s voice: “Six people in an enclosed quarter. Temperatures get high in the middle of The Twilight Zone.”

No sooner has the bomb shelter door closed of its own accord that a female voice is heard announcing “Emergency Activate Zone 1 Code 342,” though when they turn on their transistor radio, nothing appears to be amiss. Then that same female voice continues, “Disaster Integration in 30 Minutes,” and the countdown begins.

“The bomb shelter seems to be taking on a life of its own!” exclaims one of the guests, prompting the host to check his “Sears DeLuxe Bomb Shelter Manual,” but nothing in it explains what is happening, or how it is possible that the female voice seems actually to be responding to everything he’s saying.

Clearly drinks are in order, and since there are only four glasses for the six trapped victims, the logical suggestion is that they empty out two of those cans of green beans and use them as glasses.

If the sextet has been frightened before, imagine their terror when a news flash comes over the radio announcing “a UFO over Harrisburg heading towards Russia.”

Worse still is their horror at learning that it is none other than their host who has sent that atomic bomb on its way to the USSR! “A shelter isn’t all you can get at Sears,” he remarks, before adding ominously, “The bomb shelter is going to self destruct.”

As the temperature approaches 100 degrees, then 105 degrees, the host explains to his assembled guests’ increasing dismay his plans for “molecular integration,” plans which must now be modified due to the addition of the two delivery men to the trapped foursome.

It was, you see, only supposed to be Adam and Eve and Adam and Eve tonight. “You were supposed to integrate with me to create the perfect new man,” he tells his male friend. Now they will have to make that one perfect specimen with four men instead of two!

This first of last night’s four playlets ended in true Twilight Zone fashion with the gruesome (i.e. outrageously funny) sight of three men (one has made a last-minute escape) glued together as the “molecular integration” takes place before the horrified eyes of the two women, who have also begun their integration into a single body, the arms of one applying lipstick to the mouth of the other!

No mere plot synopsis can convey the joy of seeing a half-dozen or so fast-thinking comic geniuses creating for one performance only a brand new play that both spoofs and pays tribute to the genius that was Rod Serling and the series that has become synonymous with his name.

 As with any Impro Theatre offering, last night’s cast members (Lisa Frederickson, Kelly Holden-Bashar, Brian Michael Jones, Brian Lohman, Jo McGinley, Paul Rogan, and Ryan Smith) proved themselves experts at thinking on their feet (including knowing when to enter and exit a scene), responding to unexpected bits of dialog which can lead to abrupt plotline twists, and creating unique turns of phrases like last night’s “Don’t get your shoes all in a crumpet.” And if certain opportunities end up lost due to the inability of mere humans to read each other’s thoughts, the resulting play is well worth the effort of its creators.

Last night’s remaining three episodes were each also inspired by a single suggestion.

A 50’s 60’s occupation—shoe shine boy—led to the tale of an adult shoe shine boy who finally achieves his lifelong dream to be a magician, with—guess what?—unexpected results.

A request for “an activity in the next room” prompted the response “dancing” and the tale of a wallflower named Mabel, alone in a cloak room as life-of-the-dance-party Eleanor sings next door. Could it be that a visit to The Twilight Zone will turn the tables on Mabel and Eleanor?

Finally, a mode of transportation in the ‘50s/‘60s—a train—brought about a three-character playlet revolving around two female childhood friends who meet a mysterious stranger on a train.

Twilight Zone Unscripted owes much of its success to its directors Stephen Kearin and McGinley, who like their revolving troupe of actors, have become experts at the macabre world created by Rod Serling.

The evening’s behind-the-scenes stars include Sandra Burns’ blank-and-white costumes, Leigh Allen’s terrific noirish lighting design (which the cast must know backwards and forwards in order to always “find their light” regardless of the where their improvisation takes them), and “lighting and sound improvisers” Ian Gotler, Eliot Hochberg, and Lissette Jean-Marie, who combine recorded background music with improvised sound effects to inspired effect.

Twilight Zone Unscripted runs in rep with Chekhov Unscripted, the rotating casts of Impro Theatre ensemble members and guest artists made up of Jean-Marie, Kearin, Amy Kidd, Lauren Rose Lewis, Rebecca Lowman, Michael Manuel, Nick Massouh, Dan O’Connor, Edi Patterson, Michelle Spears, Floyd VanBuskirk, and Patty Worthham.

Twilight Zone Unscripted and Chekhov Unscripted are produced for Odyssey Theatre by Beth Hogan and produced for Impro Theatre by Dan Fishbach and O’Connor. Julianne Buescher, Julia Emelin Loeb, and Tiffany Janeen are stage managers.

Rod Serling may have departed this earth nearly four decades ago, but his legacy lives on in the ever-rerunning world of TV—and now, hilariously, four new episodes a night at Twilight Zone Unscripted.

Odyssey Theatre, 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., West Los Angeles.

–Steven Stanley
October 10, 2012

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