Review: A Vibrant Presentation of Welcome to Night Vale Live at Athenaeum Theatre

Despite having recently welcomed fall, Chicago was enveloped by the warmth of a mysterious desert town called Night Vale earlier this week. The cast of the Welcome to Night Vale podcast performed their latest live installment, “A Spy in the Desert,” at Athenaeum Theatre. The venue, filled to the brim with both avid fans and newcomers alike, was transported to the strange world of Night Vale, just for an evening. For those who are unfamiliar with the podcast, Welcome to Night Vale is a popular paranormal and surrealist production created by Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor, revolving around the oddities and strange happenings in the fictional town of Night Vale. The series, which follows the format of a news radio show, features informative segments that update the residents of the town on breaking news, sports, community announcements, weather, and more. The voice of Night Vale is a radio host named Cecil Palmer, voiced by Cecil Baldwin. Though at first the news segments are seemingly mundane, nothing is ever as it seems in Night Vale. Upon entering the theater, the first sight that I saw was of fans scattered throughout the lobby; fans with colorful purple hair, fans decked in Night Vale merch, and even fans in cosplays. Some fans cosplayed their interpretation of the characters (the podcast encourages listeners to use their imagination to visualize them) while other dressed as iconic Night Vale figures like the mighty glow cloud. As soon as the doors to the main hall opened, the crowd dispersed and everyone eagerly shuffled to their seats. We were all anticipating the start of the show. The show opened with a brief, but heartfelt, honest, and intimate musical set by Mal Blum, a musician and songwriter from New York. Though their set was heavily consisted of their music, a few relatable stories, witty jokes, and a very personal poem about Ghost Adventures, spirits, and depression was also sprinkled into the mix. (They were later brought back onstage to perform their song “Robert Frost” for the “weather” segment.) Blum’s set was a fine balance between heavy and humorous themes. This theme would set the tone for the rest of the night. After Mal Blum’s opening act, the crew wasted no time in moving onto the main performance. Once the lights dimmed, Cecil Baldwin stepped onto the stage and the audience erupted in cheers and applause. Thus began the latest in the Welcome to Night Vale saga, “A Spy in the Desert.” The episode followed Night Vale’s community radio host, Cecil, throughout his show as he investigated the sudden appearance of “the mink,” a shapeshifting creature that travels around collecting secrets. So how was the show itself? Without giving away spoilers, “A Spy in the Desert” was phenomenal, a true testament to the quality of the podcast itself. Over the years of traveling and performing live shows, Welcome to Night Vale seemed to have truly perfected its live performance formula. Despite it being a live reading of the podcast, the vibrance of the voice actors made it seem more like a stage production. Baldwin’s stage presence was captivating. He encouraged dialogue and audience participation throughout numerous parts of the show, really making it an engaging experience. The supporting cast, featuring Meg Bashwhinner as Deb, a sentient patch of haze, Symphony Sanders as Tamika Flynn, and more, also brought an added quirkiness and energy to the stage. “A Spy in the Desert” is not only entertaining, but also an inclusive show for all types of fans. Going into the show, I was concerned that as a more casual fan of the series, I would have a hard time following the plot. However, the opposite was proved to be true. “A Spy in the Desert” turned out to be a standalone piece from the podcast. While it included lots inside jokes and references, it also incorporated many mentions of pop culture and broader themes, making sure no one was excluded from the narrative. Although the podcast has been in production since 2012, the Night Vale craze has yet to die down, but for good reason. Welcome to Night Vale continues to stay relevant through its unique and dark humor, engaging storytelling, peculiar characters, and by continuing to push the boundaries of creativity. Welcome to Night Vale’s “A Spy in the Desert” is definitely worth seeing live. If you’re interested in checking out one of the remaining shows, be sure to check out the list of upcoming tour dates on the podcast’s website.  
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Pearl Shin