Radiolab: Carnival of Ideas

Carnival of Ideas

The live show from WNYC’s Radiolab brings science, comedy, dinosaurs, puppets and even Beckett to Verizon Theatre. With video.

published Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Photo: Marco Lau
Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich

Grand Prairie — Sometimes we wake in the morning not knowing that it will be our last day on Earth. Sometimes we walk knowingly into the void. From the world’s dinosaurs being wiped out in two hours by incendiary glass rain from an asteroid crash, to two actors giving their final performance before Parkinson’s disease shut down their bodies completely. Those were the bookends of Apocalyptical, a live elegy on endings presented the show and podcast Radiolab from WNYC. It drew a tremendous crowd to theVerizon Theater at Grand Prairie on a rainy Monday night.

The dinosaur section was epic, featuring a rather agile 10-foot-tall Tyrannosaurus puppet striding about the stage (thanks to the human inside) and leaning over to nuzzle people on the front row. Eventually it found the questions posed by Radiolab’s Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich about its extinction to be intolerable and stomped off. Later, a more enigmatic Sauropod, or rather its 30-foot neck and head with startlingly life-like eyes, arced across the stage from the wings, a mournful witness to its demise.

While the massive puppetry by Erth Visual & Physical was dazzling, it was set dressing to the storytelling core. Abumrad and Krulwich’s ability to find the amazement and emotion in science, history and intellect is superb. They awaken the curiosity that drives human development and make us feel a part of, even invested in, the process without a whiff of ponderousness. In Apocalyptical the lightness is maintained by an improvisational soundscape from sonic electric guitarist Sarah Lipstate and On Fillmore, a duo of Darin Gray on acoustic upright bass and Glenn Kotche (of Wilco) on percussion.

Apocalyptical contrasted two theories of dinosaur extinction, both dealing with an asteroid the size of Mount Everest smashing into the Earth. First off was the familiar conjecture that the dust raised occluded the sunlight, causing massive plant, and then animal, die off over 20,000 years from the dark and cold.  A newer theory is that the minerals blasted up from the asteroid crash superheated in the atmosphere, falling back down as obsidian rain and heating the globe to 1200 degrees. A species that ruled the world for millions of years, gone in two hours. Survivors found safety in the sea depths or several inches underground. The live video feed by Keith Scratch made this so much better than audio-only podcast could be.

British comic Simon Amstell opened Apocalyptical and served as emcee, offering material that was both silly and sarcastic with a breezy honest neuroticism. His second set was especially strong, setting up well a light middle section of a couple of Radiolab shorts. One looked at the proto mammal that arose after the dinosaurs, a shrew-like creature, brought to literal life in a 6-foot costume. It looked like a mascot for mammals. Another bit looked at bismuth, a mineral that oxidizes into Pepto-Bismol pink. Having the heaviest mass, it is the last of the stable elements on the periodic table. Not especially deep but classically Radiolab curious, more like a cerebral palate cleanser to the powerful final act.

Shifting from epic to intimate, Apocalyptical concluded with the story of two actors with advanced Parkinson’s who rally to act one last time in Samuel Beckett’s darkly comic Endgame, a story also portrayed in The Endgame Project documentary. In a still and quiet presentation that drew you in, Apocalyptical relayed the ravishment of the disease and the hurdles each man faced to give their final performance. “When the body gives way, all that’s left is heart.” After a standing ovation, we departed in most contemplative exit crowd ever. But a contented one, our brains well fed.

Radiolab Live, along with TED Talks and World Science Festival, are a true re-imagineering of entertainment: idea carnivals. As a podcast and public radio show, Radiolab’s theatrical and musical literary journalism tells stories upon which fascinating facts suspend. Live stage allows them video and spectacle not available in audio formats. This is only the second touring production of Radiolab Live. In a few years, these shows could be truly mind blowing.

It was a great night for North Texas intelligentsia. So refreshing to have a show that plays up to you. Every minute assumed that your cerebral light bulb was on. Krulwich stated it was the largest hall they’d performed at. That’s a mighty fine sign.

Original article and video at: