Upping the chances for primal terror, “Lykos Anthropos” is a site-specific piece, performed outdoors in a wooded clearing in Davidsonville, Md., with performances starting Oct. 21. The locale echoes the story that unfurls in the two-actor play, directed by Alex Levy: It’s a tale of guilt, fear and the moon, set in a lonely spot in the mountains of West Virginia.
Bartlett says the approximately 20 ticket holders who will be admitted to each evening performance (there will be no matinees) will walk from their cars into the woods, bringing with them a flashlight or lantern to light their path and a folding chair or blanket.
Bypassing a conventional venue — the sturdy walls, the reassuring exit signs — makes it easier to create a play that scares, Bartlett believes. “Horror is really difficult to write for the stage,” he says. “And I think it’s because [in a dedicated theater space], it’s almost impossible for us to forget that we’re in a theater, and that we are safe.”
Bartlett, 59, is no stranger to traditional venues, fittingly enough for a writer who also has a distinguished career as an associate professor at Bowie State University. His plays have run at the likes of 1st Stage (2018’s “Swimming With Whales,” a tale of loss and healing on Nantucket) and Rep Stage (2019’s “E2,” an audacious reimagining of Christopher Marlowe’s 16th-century play “Edward II”).
But he has also dipped into venturesome producing models. In 2013, he was one of the playwrights who founded the collective the Welders, whose theater-artist members produce their own works. After moving on from that group (whose blueprint calls for its cohorts of artists to exit after a time and pass the baton to others), he has self-produced site-specific plays like his “The Accident Bear,” which had a weeks-long sold-out run in an Annapolis laundromat in 2018. In spring 2023, he plans to mount a rom-com in an Annapolis record store.
Site-specific producing can remove some of the barriers to getting a play up and running. “As writers, we have stories that may not be marketable to the American theater, or whatever they’re looking for, at a particular moment,” Bartlett observes. But offbeat spaces can also have their own theatrical power. “There’s just something about site-specific theater that I think gets under an audience’s skin in ways that going to a regular theater can’t,” he says.
The idea for “Lykos Anthropos” came to him this spring, when he was staying alone in a mountain cabin while attending a friend’s wedding. One morning, around sunrise, he went out on the back deck. “There was a mist coming down, and it was a little creepy,” he remembers. Right then, he started writing a monologue that became the seed of the play.
Funded in part with money that accompanied a faculty award Bartlett received from the University System of Maryland board of regents, he subsequently wrote the bulk of the script while staying in an Airbnb in Rhodes, Greece. The Greek myth of Lycaon — a sacrilegious king transformed into a wolf as punishment for attempting to trick the god Zeus — informed the play.
It may be a propitious time to unleash werewolf-themed theater. “We really are living in the golden age of horror, led by Jordan Peele,” Bartlett says, citing examples like the films of Ari Aster (“Midsommar”) and the multiple iterations of the vampire tale “Let the Right One In.”
He believes the genre is in some way profound. Horror resonates with “this deep fear in us that our way of life is going to radically change, that the trappings of modern life are going to disappear, and that we’re going to have to go back to a more primal way of living,” he says.
And as a way to mainline into a viewer’s emotions, horror can hardly be beat. He still has vivid memories of being allowed, as a child, to stay up to watch George A. Romero’s “Night of the Living Dead.” “I made it through the first six or seven minutes, and then I didn’t sleep for a week,” he remembers.
“Lykos Anthropos” draws on that experience, since “our earliest memories always stay with us, and they form a lot of the art that we’re attracted to,” Bartlett says. Whether his new play will elicit similarly intense reactions in its flashlight-toting audience is still to be seen. But he certainly intends the work to be, in part, “a deep-dive investigation into fear in our lives, and what it does to us.”
A wooded clearing at 215 Emilys Way, Davidsonville, Md. bob-bartlett.com.
Prices: $25. Advance sales only and limited seating. Not recommended for children.