In William Golding's classic novel "Lord of the Flies," schoolboys survive a plane crash on a desolate island only to face a hideous fate of their own making, driven by base instincts of greed, power-lust and fear. That is, they behave just like adults.
Members of Annex Theater, one of Baltimore's clever and fearless troupes, reiterate that dispiriting message about human nature in their own very loose adaptation of the Golding book. It has been staged in communal fashion, sans director, more or less persuasively.
As you might expect, "The Lord of Flies" — the Annexers repositioned the "the" in the title — does not end happily. And I don't think it's too much of a spoiler to mention that the show isn't about kids (avoiding spoilers isn't easy).
The scene is Plum Island, home to an infectious disease research center. A breach at this high-security facility leads to a lockdown that finds staffers trapped together for who knows how long. Their director is missing (that director is wryly identified), so they will have to figure out by themselves how best to deal with the crisis and each other. What could possibly go wrong?
The production makes an effort to draw the audience in (everyone gets a press pass at the door — oops, that was a spoiler), but doesn't go very far with the idea. That said, the concept leads to a notable payoff at the end of the play; my guess is you won't have ever left a theater in such a manner before.
There are some clear links to the original "Lord of the Flies." A couple of characters' names provided a telling connective. Same for the type of animals being tested at the center. Where Golding's hapless youths need to keep a fire burning in hopes of attracting potential rescuers, the researchers stuck in the lab try to keep a radio going.
More important, of course, is that the novel's core issues find resonance here. If the writing (five actors are credited with fashioning the script) misses opportunities to get deeper into the clash of personalities and values, the fundamental point about perceived threats is underlined. It's pretty much the same one the novel's schoolboys learned: "Maybe there is a beast … maybe it's only us."
The Plum Island scientists know enough of the potential danger in their labs to be scared at the thought of what might happen if it spreads. How they address the emergency and break into factions, each convinced of finding the proper procedure, propels the drama.
Although there's enough color and even humor in the script to keep things interesting, and a persuasive arc to the story, the package feels underdeveloped. Some plot lines seem tacked on, suggesting that the ensemble nature of the project meant that everyone got a chance to pursue an angle, whether it contributed substantially to the whole or not.
What helps tie everything together is Rick Gerriets' imaginative set (he makes the most of Annex Theater's tiny storefront venue), Evan Moritz's lighting, Sonya Norko's vivid video projections and, especially, Rjyan Kidwell's richly atmospheric sound design.
The cast reveals varying levels of experience and ease. Sarah Jacklin could use more spark and nuance as the by-the-book Dr. Wolfe. Madison Coan does strong work as a researcher seeking to fill the authority vacuum; Coan also devised the periodic bursts of choreography that spice the staging.
Sarah Lamar makes a dynamic impression as Portia, a public relations specialist who keeps a perfect smile frozen on her face as long as possible. Maddy Scott and Dave Iden as the tightly connected, every so nerdy Drs. Eriksem, make some telling contributions. Kidwell has the menace down well as a looming security guard.
The most intriguing character, Simon, a gentle scientist with a readily shared knowledge of coconut crabs, fits Jacob Budenz perfectly. The actor's boyish voice gives Simon a disarming innocence, a certain angelic quality, even.