Radio brought to life with Ira Glass, company at Zellerbach

Tibet House Benefit
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“This American Life,” well, came alive at Zellerbach Hall on Dec. 12, as Ira Glass — host of NPR’s beloved radio show “This American Life” — partnered with dancers Monica Bill Barnes and Anna Bass for “Three Acts, Two Dancers, One Radio Host.” A joyous but flawed intersection of dance and radio, the trio onstage harnessed its collective energy and charm to mostly wondrous effect.

The set was not dissimilar to the trio’s debut Zellerbach Hall performance nearly two years prior — a fact that Glass acknowledged. Wistfully, he noted that Berkeley was one of the final stops on the trio’s nearly three years touring “Three Acts” on and off.

Much of the show hinged upon a suspension of disbelief — that dance can serve as a visual expression of the wry witticisms of public radio but also that the audience hadn’t done due diligence and Googled what to expect from the show aside from the chance to breathe the same air as Ira Glass. Still, the premise is a unique one, even after its two years on the road: choreographed dance routines set to the singular inventiveness of a typical “This American Life” episode.

Plucking the featured stories from classic “This American Life” episodes and splitting the show into three acts — complete with its performers holding out cue cards to signal the start of a new act — instilled the show with a familiarity for the listeners of the beloved radio show.

Thus, “Three Acts” oftentimes resembled a real-life visual reel of the story Glass and his collaborators weave on the airwaves. During a segment on the awkward, complex interplay in middle school dances, Barnes and Bass plucked six audience members to recreate the coming-of-age ritual that is the middle school dance.

The bit was brilliant — paired up and forced to slow-dance, hands placed on hips and shoulders, the bewildered sextet captured the affable, adorable process of middle school courtship. The stage — actors and all — illuminated as the audience was presented with a diorama of a familiar radio story.

But entertaining as the bit was, it also illuminated the show’s biggest flaw. “Three Acts” was less a marriage of dance and radio as much as it was a tug-of-war. Though Bass and Barnes delighted on stage — the ebullient, vaudevillian foil to Glass’ stoic stage presence — they served as stagehands as often as they did dancers.

For better or worse, Ira Glass is a showrunner, whether on stage or radio. He maneuvered effortlessly between the rigid exactness of the script and the rollicking magic of improvisation, as he is wont to do hosting “This American Life.”  He steals the show by virtue of mere presence.

At one point, Glass recounted his guest stint on teen magazine Rookie’s “Ask a Grown Man” series. Charmingly self-aware of his niche popularity, he whipped up a balloon dog both on the video series and onstage. Glass, a balloon pump and a balloon Dachshund were all it took to send the audience into laughing fits. It was effortless, as Glass nearly ran away with the show in an off-handed transitional bit.

Barnes and Bass did their best. Going off-script in dance is a tall order for even the most gifted performers — improvisation and dance don’t mix. But Barnes and Bass built their career subverting these traditional norms of dance. After all, as they mentioned in an interview with The Daily Californian, they’ve done stranger performances on even stranger settings — inside a fountain in Brooklyn’s Bowling Green Park and a Jacuzzi at a book opening, to name a few.

So even when their performances — like a raucous number set to James Brown’s “Get Up” — felt tacked on and planned, it was still a hell of a good time to behold.

Not that dance and radio weren’t able to split the difference during “Three Acts.” The penultimate act featured the two dancers on top of a dining table in what was perhaps the most classical of their routines. It was a heartbreaker, a dazzling technical display set to a poet’s laments of his wife’s dying days, but the bit showcased “Three Acts”’ mission statement: marrying the two art forms in a way that felt mutually necessary.

At curtains, Glass, Barnes and Bass showboated around the stage, a celebratory regale of the three acts that had just passed — confetti and all. It summed up the show concisely. The finale was a delight, of course. But one couldn’t help but feel that the celebration was for Glass rather than the inventive, sometimes-brilliant show.

Joshua Bote is the assistant arts & entertainment editor. Contact him at [email protected]. Tweet him at @joshuaboat.

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