A Quick Review of Radiolab's Live Show: Apocalyptical

Apocalyptical is a near perfect translation of Radiolab from the sound stage to the theatrical stage. Indeed, the stage version is like watching a Protools session mixed in realtime by DJ Jad Abumrad. Not only does Jad co-host the show along with Robert Krulwich, but for most of the show he's also directing it from behind a Macbook, playing prerecorded interview tracks with one hand and cuing the band (who provides virtually the entire sound bed) with the other. The Radiolab sound is so distinct, and the live show captures it so well, that at times I found myself forgetting how much of it was being created on the fly.

Since this isn't just a live taping of a radio show, Apocalyptical uses visuals, and to good effect. The visual content is projected onto three screens, which loom over the stage and alternately provide a visual bed for Jad and Robert's stories or draw complete focus for a video segment. The visual cues, which are controlled by an on-stage operator, were compelling and often refreshingly lo-fi (several of the sequences involved shots of toy dinosaurs being manipulated by hands). The only time I felt the need for more was during final story of the show, where the static visuals tipped the balance too much in favor of hearing over seeing.

Despite such it being such a great show, I was left with a niggle about Radiolab writ live. A large part of the radio show's success is how Jad and Robert cultivate a sense that they are discovering things right along with the audience. They do this by scripting out the story beats and technical stuff, improvising the rest, and doing multiple takes and pickups to serve the rhythm of the final piece. As a radio listener you probably have some awareness there are production tricks at play, but it's easy to suspend disbelief and lose yourself in the mastered flow.

Not so with a live show performed a couple dozen times across America. While Robert and Jad are extremely good at bantering and the writing is excellent, you know they're participating in what's necessarily an act; the enthusiasm and wonder they convey is at best a facsimile of what they felt originally some time ago. Take for example a bit in the show about an ingredient in Pepto-Bismol: Jad is great at acting like he's surprised by what Robert's telling him, but that's what he's doing: acting. Faking it in service of the show and the audience. Most people will not mind this pinprick of artifice shining through, but for me it was enough to distract slightly from the spectacle.

Despite my quibbles, Apocalyptical was nonetheless a fantastic production, and ten minutes of Reggie Watts ended up being worth the price of admission alone.