[This ran in the L.A. Times.]
Before touring live versions of Radiolab, his gripping radio shows of scientific discovery and biography concocted with co-host Jad Abumrad, Peabody-winning reporter Robert Krulwich made just one brief stage appearance, decades ago, when he was recruited off the Manhattan streets to play a frozen, chair-bound Prince in an 11 1/2 -hour Robert Wilson opera. (He quickly fell to the floor and slept through the production.)
Abumrad, a 2011 MacArthur Grant-winning producer-composer, describes a more active fetal crouch when he “hid in his Minneapolis dressing room” last year during the duo’s first theatrical outing, a low-key mini-tour called “Symmetry” featuring PowerPoint slides, a live cellist and the bulk of the show issuing forth from Abumrad’s computer (except for the time it sat uncharged and dead in Seattle when they walked onstage).
It wouldn’t seem predictive to bet that this particular twosome would tour again so soon, nor that they’d bring their own (albeit intellectual) dance chorus. Yet for “In the Dark,” which plays Royce Hall for three nights, they’ve retooled another three-act Radiolab-style show into a kind of vaudevillian revue featuring comedian Demetri Martin doing stand-up, Bay Area rocker Thao Nguyen creating Abumrad’s trademark plinks-and-plurps soundscore, plus six dancers from the buzzy Pilobolus dance company portraying evolving eyeballs and unmoored astronauts. “Nerd circus” is the phrase Martin coined for it.
Speaking by phone last week from their WNYC offices, Krulwich and Abumrad, with Pilobolus executive director Itamar Kubovy, went into specifics on the show’s tone (“high-energy cozy” to “low-energy cozy,” says Krulwich) and content origins (author Oliver Sacks told them about two blind men with vastly opposed descriptions of their interior mindscapes). The question “Who knows darkness?” led them to Pilobolus and Kubovy, and a rapid enthusiasm for the troupe’s legendary collaborative working process. (The full Pilobolus company will perform its larger show at Irvine Barclay May 17-19.)
Kubovy — who oversaw blocking and lighting for the production — says it was a challenge reimagining the intimacy of the radio stories and honoring the zeal of the Radiolab community. (The program airs on two Los Angeles stations, 11 a.m Sundays on KCRW and 3 p.m. Saturdays on KPCC, and is available as a podcast.)
Using “visual information … and storytelling … and a bunch of people onstage … who helped model [the] idea of community,” Kubovy says, “it really makes it feel like everyone in the room has been thinking together. And that is such an amazing thing for the theater to achieve without a traditional story or dramatic lesson.”
Abumrad admits a fascination with how his storytelling cadence and texture was launched to another level by the dancers. “In my mind at least … if you strip away all the words, [storytelling] is a series of musical gestures. Like there are things that we say in every story: [Abumrad deepens his voice.] ‘And then something happened..’ You can take away the words, and the meaning is still there.[Abumrad says ‘Dum dum dum dum‘ with the same low, deepened quality.] The story becomes this series of just upward and downwards gestures, getting quiet and then getting loud, and then getting staccato and getting legato.”
Working with Pilobolus, he says: “It’s the coolest thing to see those gestures made into movement, because on some level they always were…It’s seeing your art form inside out and seeing it for what it is. It doesn’t feel like an add-on at all. It feels like pouring something from deep within.”
“That becomes really the ultimate vindication of this form,” says Dubovy, ” …that we can find this way where you can’t pull it back apart and say ‘Oh that’s dance’ and ‘That’s radio’ and ‘That’s music’ and ‘That’s comedy.’ No one’s form remains clean and discreet — everyone’s form gets slightly distorted in the service of this other weird crystalline kind of creature.”