Not many crowds cheer at the appearance of the table of elements as though a favorite baseball player has taken the field, but at Apocalyptical, Radiolab's live show at Oakland's Paramount Theater on Sunday, that is exactly what happened. Warning: spoilers ahead.
Sitting down at the Paramount, you are engulfed by a 1930 Art Deco masterpiece. Huge silver columns frame the stage and the walls are a lattice of coppered carved reliefs. The pre-show music started the evening off with a crafted jungle of noise, textured with the sounds of the filling audience's excited chatter. There is no need to win the crowd at a live Radiolab show; it's already packed with NPR fans and every one of them is on your side. "We have love for Radiolab," the announcer began, but the crowd needed no reminding. The show's theme song played to whoops and applause.
The first act was a touching eulogy to the monsters of our childhood imaginations: dinosaurs. It retold the story, based on new scientific findings, of the 66 million year old mass extinction brought on by the impact of a massive asteroid. As the two hosts, Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich, introduced the topic, a fantastically detailed dinosaur puppet with a Tyrannosaurus-like body, which stood about 18 feet tall and was piloted from inside, tromped onstage. It roared and stomped and demanded attention from the two oblivious hosts. What better way to learn about the dinosaurs than to ask one in person? So Abumrad and Krulwich called on Ira Glass, the elder statesman of NPR and an apparent dinosaur linguist, to translate for the dinosaur -- a subtle joke about Glass's long-running career in radio and podcasting.
During the story they introduced another monster, a sweet, doe-eyed Diplodocus who peeked her head and long neck out from backstage. She was the herbivore of the show's two-puppet dinosaur family, and easy to fall in love with. Too easy in fact as the end is near. Soon, the surface of the Earth is cooked by falling ejecta, vaporized rock returning to Earth after the asteroid's impact, and in a blazing red heat, she dies.
As they moved her body slowly offstage, the theater sat with the terrifying realization that within hours every living thing not burrowed underground, or safe in deep water, was baked to death in an atmospheric furnace. That real individuals, an entire order of life that had dominated Earth for millions of years, burned to nothing. Her death was dramatic and touching and brought to the present the feeling of helplessness in the face of such unbridled destruction. It was our wonderfully executed origin story told through an honest portrait of death and extinction.
In the second act Reggie Watts, an expert improviser and professional "disorienteur," mixed a grab bag of accents, musical genres, and lecture styles into a stream of conscious standup that mocked erudite, airless intellectuals by using words for their texture instead of their content. His style, which can be seen in a May 2012 TED lecture (above), plays with your assumptions, delivering a stream of meaningless gibberish with such a spot-on smart, English, better-than-you air, you couldn't help but laugh. The lecture melted into a vibrant a cappella remix of soul and electronica warped through a palette of audio equipment.
Watts provided a much-needed shift in tone between the epic death of the first act and the show's third act, which walked us through the stage life of an actor confronting Parkinson's disease. Chronicling the actor's last-ditch effort to challenge his newly shambling body and play the role of a lifetime, this was the only section that fell mildly flat. It was an ending for sure, but glazed with a bit too much "face-your-fears" self-help to sit comfortably with the first two powerful acts. But even when the show lagged in spots, mostly when mumbled lines or too-quiet sound levels left us straining to hear, cheering periodically erupted, mostly at mistakes. One of the best moments occurred when Krulwhich accidentally skipped a page in his huge binder script and blurted, "Was I not supposed to say that part?"
The power of this show, and of the Radiolab podcast, is that in the face of alarmism over the disengagement of youth and declines in science literacy sounding the death knoll for a paradoxically increasingly techno-dependent society, Radiolab embodies curiosity with infectious excitement. And as Reggie Watts said in his performance, there's nothing like being surrounded by a crowd of people excited for a night of "intelligent fun."