'Lord of the Flies' grows up in new Annex production set in biotech facility

People have always said this—even in better times—but it really feels like the world is falling apart a little bit. Our country is on the brink of a second civil war and we're in danger of electing the biggest and possibly most dangerous joke of a human being as president, not to mention the recent catastrophes in Afghanistan, Turkey, and France. We have to recognize the human disposition for chaos that coincides with attempts to establish order. And, again, people have always been trying to make sense of that.

Many of us were first urged to consider this human fault when William Golding's "Lord of the Flies" appeared on our high school curricula. The story of a group of British schoolboys who devolve into bloodthirsty monsters after being marooned on an island prompted some of our first meditations on mortality, power, the beast within humankind.

With the final production of their current season, Annex Theater reconfigures Golding's story in a divergent interpretation for the stage, "The Lord of Flies" (note the nuanced change in title), collectively written by Annex resident actors Madison Coan, Sarah Lamar, Rjyan Kidwell, Jacob Budenz, and Sarah Jacklin. The writers also perform in the show, along with Ren Pepitone, Dave Iden, Maura Dwyer, and Maddy Scott, who also had a hand in the play's conception. No single director is named in the program; this is the result of collaboration, or, perhaps more apt for this production, a total lack of structure.

From beginning to end, the "Flies" experience is less like literature as theater than a pro haunted house or Pirates of the Caribbean-style dark ride as theater. Here, Golding's island is replaced with Plum Island Infectious Disease Center, a massive 20-building facility set designer Rick Gerriets shrinks down to fit the modest Psychic/Annex space with various warning and video surveillance signs, posters, and two rotating lab desks. Each audience member receives a Plum Island Press Pass badge "to ensure your safety during the tour" led by Portia (Lamar), a sugary-sweet PR rep whose smile is as tight as her hair bun. She introduces us to a projected image of the facility's director, who happens to share a face with former Baltimore Museum of Art director Doreen Bolger. Alarms sound off throughout the tour but Portia's composure remains intact as she keeps the tour going, introducing the staff, who study and engineer new applications for weaponized cholera, among other things.

But the tour ends when Plum Island goes under emergency lockdown. The cause of the quarantine is unclear, and as the staff scrambles to find the source (the primary suspect is a loose test subject—a small pig, a reference to the hog Golding's characters behead and mount on a stick), they beef over how to maintain order and whether or not they should kill any escaped specimens. The stakes are high—higher than they are for the isolated boys of Golding's novel—a disaster in a high-security biotech facility could be a disaster for the surrounding ecosystem, for the world.

Several scenes abruptly break out into dance numbers, choreographed by Coan and backed by Kidwell's sound design, the movements varying between hip-hop and a kind of smooth, modern ballet. In words and in motion, we watch each character become unhinged—either slowly and torturously, or almost immediately, depending on who you're looking at.

As Dr. Wolfe and Jackie, respectively, Jacklin and Coan compete to be the alpha of the group. The former obsessively sticks to protocol—and panics when she finds herself in situations lacking guidelines—and the latter jumps to self-defense and war mongering. They're two ends of the leadership spectrum, and, of course, they find themselves stuck in the same shit.

Budenz plays Simon, a sensitive and somewhat naive scientist who fears more for the well-being of the test subjects than his own (you have to wonder how he ended up with this kind of job). Mirroring Golding's similarly timid character of the same name, Simon is easily the most sympathetic role—a power Budenz wields beautifully as he interrupts the frenzied multi-character scenes with monologues, weaving a dark, foreshadowing fable about a coconut crab who is killed by his fearful comrades. Immersed in the bubbling light of Sonya Norko's illustrative video projections, these quieter, uncanny moments bring even more discomfort than the livelier scenes.

Ren Pepitone and Maura Dwyer play members of the press, forming a key link between the audience (also press) and the stage—their involvement in the ensuing madness implicates us in the group's violent crimes. We cannot find peace in being bystanders; however, the inseparable married couple Dr. Eriksem and Dr. Eriksem (Dave Iden and Maddy Scott), who always do what they're told to a fault, prove that the role of the spineless bystander holds no innocence anyway.

Rjyan Kidwell delivers blockbuster-worthy quips (example, referring to the press: "You know they all tweet on the shitter"—it's true) as the khaki-clad, aviator-shaded stachebro Roger, who serves as the facility's stoic security guard and Jackie's personal muscle. He's hilarious until he's just sinister. If you thought "Lord of the Flies" was fucked up when you were 13, Roger updates the level of the grotesque for the graduated.

The characters in Golding's novel are all children, whose descent into savagery suggests that human beings are not, in fact, born innocent; conditioning alone will neither encourage nor prevent us from fighting and killing our way to power. By casting themselves as adults, the devising team loses some of that weight.

But the company doesn't seem too concerned with exploring Golden's themes, and perhaps they shouldn't—no one wants to go back to high school English. Annex's "Flies" is more about what chaos feels like, rather than how or why it happens. The audience enters a highly controlled atmosphere and leaves blood pumping and wondering "is it really over?" It's a feeling that, maybe, we'd all better get used to.

"The Lord of Flies" runs through Aug. 7 at Annex Theater. For more information, visit baltimoreannextheater.org.

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