Radiolab Live: “In The Dark”
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From its home at WNYC in New York, the informative, idiosyncratic Radiolab is beamed weekly to over 300 public radio stations around the country. But the appeal of the show isn’t that it feels as if it’s coming to you from any particular place—in fact, it’s just the opposite. Hosted by Jad Abumrad, a writer and composer by training, and Robert Krulwich, a veteran science reporter, the program edits together music, sound, and voices so fluidly and cohesively that it’s almost removed from the physical world of the studio altogether, existing in a conceptual space where heady scientific ideas can be shrunk down or writ large. Put succinctly, it’s radio that embraces and explores the limitless imaginative potentials of the medium. Turning the program into a live performance, and taking it out of the “theatre of the mind” and into a brick-and-mortar theatre, robs the show of some of its wonder, but at least Abumrad and Krulwich brought along some creative friends to help cover the cracks Saturday at the Riverside Theater.
Many of the dates on Radiolab’s current “In The Dark” tour feature comedian extraordinaire Demetri Martin playing warm-up act and emcee, but those of us on the Midwest leg have had to make do with a replacement. Of course, that’s an easy pill to swallow when the substitute is none other than former Kid-In-The-Hall Dave Foley, who opened up the show with some gushing praise of Radiolab. Foley warm-heartedly contrasted its poetic, anything-goes approach with the bookishness of Ira Flatow’s Science Friday, and riffed on the ways people use language to minimize the importance of scientific discovery. With the assistance of folky Bay Area indie rocker Thao Nguyen and the Connecticut-based dance company Pilobolus, the enthusiastically geeky Abumrad and Krulwich took their theme—sight and the variations of light and dark that make it possible—to some exciting places, covering, among other things, the evolution of the eye, the philosophical implications of being blind, and how familiar things like sun and shade take on new, and possibly lethal, meanings in the void of space.
Pilobolus’s shadowy, contortionist pantomimes were clever and impressive, as was the show-ending crowd participation segment, which used thousands of miniature LEDs to turn the audience into a sea of stars (though that quickly turned from stunning to saccharine). But with all the dazzling potential inherent in a topic like light and dark, you couldn’t help feeling that the hosts pulled more than a few punches as far as the visual aspects of the show were concerned. With a bit more ingenuity, light and dark could have been more than themes, more than props or demonstrations—they could have been the very substance of the show. We’ve spent centuries coming up with new ways to use light to delight and amaze, from the camera obscura and the magic lantern to films and goddamn lasers, so it was a little puzzling as to why we spent so much time looking at the unremarkable sight of Abumrad and Krulwich, who quipped about having faces made for radio, when the principles they’re discussing could have been made real and immediate without that much effort or expense. In all reality, the stories and perspectives they imparted would have been engaging and (ahem) illuminating without any bells and whistles at all, making any amount of showmanship a mere bonus. But you’d have to go a lot bigger to match the kind of magic that happens when Radiolab is left to the imagination.