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Review: Bringing sound to the stage

BY ISAAC HAMLET | MAY 07, 2015 5:00 AM

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In its U.S. Spring Tour, the hit international podcast “Welcome to Night Vale” leaps from listeners laptops and iPods and onto a stage backed with their iconic shade of purple. Its most recent show, “The Investigators,” visited the Englert Theater on Sunday and performed for a sold-out audience.

“The Investigators” explores a murder in the desert town of Night Vale. Though performed live, the show follows the formula listeners of the “Welcome to Night Vale” podcast will find familiar. As always, Cecil Palmer, portrayed by Cecil Baldwin, hosts Night Vale’s surreal community radio station. Over the course of the two-hour show, interruptions manifest as both people, musical performances, and breaking news.

As with the live shows before it, “The Investigators” will almost definitely be released online for those who have not seen the show, so plot spoilers will be avoided.

Since typical “Night Vale” episodes are 20 to 30 minutes, one would expect the two-hour live show to drag. Yet even after the initial thrill of seeing Baldwin in the flesh wears off, the flatter moments of the show are quickly and easily forgotten because of the nuances the actors are able to bring. The deadly serious point of a finger into the audience followed by a playful shrug amplifies a tonal shift in the show.

The performers make full use of their limited resources. Restricted standing behind a microphone, the ample humor of the script is enhanced by gesticulations and animated facial expressions.

Excitement from one character at the prospect of a Murder-Mystery-Dinner theater is made more potent as the actor restrains himself from bouncing out of place.

Wonderful though it is to feel the near palpable energy exuding from the stage, there is certainly something lost in seeing a live show. As with any fiction, podcasts ask that you buy in to the fantasy they weave before you but also require you to do this without any visuals. In podcasts, this can lead to humorous juxtaposition between the voice and the description given of the character. For example, “Welcome to Night Vale” regularly features a character named Hiram McDaniels, who is literally a five-headed fire-breathing dragon whose voice actor has a Southern accent.

While most of the characters in the show are human, it takes the mind a few moments to adjust to seeing a regular man appear on stage after Baldwin draws an animalistic image of one of the sheriff’s secret police who frequently involved in Night Vale happenings.

Almost in acknowledgment of this issue, the script takes every opportunity to play on the advantages a stage offers. Early on in the show Baldwin asks the audience how excited they are before giving a teasing “I can’t hear you.” This is followed by more cheering until he admits, “No I really can’t hear you because I’m alone at the radio station.”

Mechanically, the script works better than the podcast’s previously released live shows. The radio style format of the podcast helps listeners buy into being a citizen of Night Vale listening to local news — a feature that is enhanced in the live show through the integration of the audience members into the story. “The Investigators” takes this another step further and makes each person in the crowd a player in the uncoiling plot. Though the audience members don’t really affect the narrative, the way this device is used here would make it far less effective if it appeared just in audio.

Baldwin should be applauded for having made this engagement possible, staying and speaking on stage for the entire show. Even as the two hours neared their end, the energy he brought to stage kept the audience just as focused as they had been at the beginning. His voice was never cracked by fatigue or over speaking and his motion remained just as fluid.

There is definitely a tradeoff watching a live show for a podcast like this. A layer of imagination previously cloaking the program melts away for the performance. But in exchange, a viewer gets not only a unique experience that could only be described as a live podcast, but they glimpse the naked mechanics of creation. Music done independently of the podcast, actors who might record in separate cities, and the passion of fans coalesce in a single theater where for two hours the fire of the fans fuel the cogs of the creators powering a single machine.


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