For a podcast set in a town “where every conspiracy theory is true,” each episode of “Welcome to Night Vale” leaves its listeners with a haunting sense of relatability after a half hour of comic relief. As its fan base grew, pushing it to the top of the iTunes podcast charts in 2013, “Night Vale’s” creators have supplemented the bi-monthly release schedule with spin-off novels and live shows. Special guests and recurring characters have been voiced by comedy and voice-acting legends including Dylan Marron, Mara Wilson, Felicia Day and Retta.
“A Spy in the Desert” is the eighth and latest live show of this otherworldly podcast’s fourth time going on the road. Unofficially, it is episode 146 of the show’s six-year run. This episode sees the desert town mitigate yet another crisis of a government intelligence breach without a mayor, leaning heavily on the military expertise of current city council member and former militia leader, Tamika Flynn.
Atlanta was the ninth stop of over 40 cities on Night Vale’s U.S.-U.K. tour. The team, which includes Cecil Baldwin, Meg Bashwiner, Symphony Sanders and Hal Lubin, performed at Center Stage Theater on Sept. 29.
True to form, the performance began with an eerily specific proverb delivered by Deb, a sentient patch of haze, voiced by Meg Bashwiner. Deb’s proverbial statements range from wacky advice to vague threats — depending on one’s evaluation of her as an ominous observer or a benevolent being, the type of mythical creature common to Night Vale.
Singer-songwriter Mal Blum’s opening numbers set the show’s tone as a musical weather report and shared the minimalist set design of the podcast. The artist’s accompaniment consisted of an electric guitar’s strategically deployed distortion pedal. Blum’s style is best characterized by guitar riffs and time signatures reminiscent of Green Day’s “American Idiot” era, underlying lyrics in the confessional style of Weezer with the unshakable inspiration of Tegan and Sara that is foundational to this current era of queercore. Blum’s music confronts the expectation of an apologetic nature, but refuses that narrative by self-correcting back to a depressed matter-of-factness. Although I did not add the songs from their setlist to my iTunes cart, “Robert Frost” and “Cool Party” are fitting replacements where “The Sound of Settling” by Death Cab for Cutie and “Townie” by Mitski have been over-played.
One challenge of taking a podcast on a live tour is converting the content from an audio-based medium to a theatrical production. Host Cecil Baldwin as Cecil Gershwin Palmer indulged his audience by sporting a flamboyant skull-patterned sport coat, mirroring the style in which fan art often depicts him. Although the minimalist set design allowed the audience’s imagination to remain in creative control of the show’s visual elements, the ambiance came off as lackluster. The set, little more than two black stools used to construct the radio station recording studio, felt washed out by the vibrancy of the lavender stage lights. If the creators’ fear was losing the reality-defiant nature of the show, an absurd armchair retrieved from a local thrift store would have functioned just as well.
As reported by Cecil Palmer in the show’s open, the latest threat to Night Vale’s public safety is a shape-shifting and compulsive secret-stealer known as The Mink. Residents were put on red alert to its presence by the Secret Police after the elusive creature infiltrated the headquarters of A Vague Yet Menacing Government Agency and the Hall of Public Records — where most of the town’s forbidden knowledge is stored for safekeeping.
Guests Lee Marvin (not of Cat Ballou) and Steve Carlsberg joined the broadcast for short segments to stress the importance of apprehending The Mink. Marvin, a famous actor, demonstrated the danger of the creature’s formidable shape-shifting ability. Bank manager and local guy who Cecil loves to hate, Steve Carlsberg, emphasized the importance of secret deposit boxes. His degree in counting makes Steve the best person to handle financial matters (even if he’s terrible at everything else).
In the town’s tradition of vigilante justice, former militia leader and current City Council member Tamika Flynn’s attempt at apprehending this menacing interloper is the most successful out of all community members’. However, the disappearance of The Mink after Cecil’s confessions makes one question if secrets can ever be considered safe.
To genuinely enjoy “Welcome to Night Vale,” one must suspend disbelief. In this surreal town, characters scoff at the existence of mountains in the way that many a queer person of color regards the idea of a government that doesn’t target them for their minority status.
The listener community is composed of people who want to manipulate space and time in order to arrive at a moment where they don’t fear persecution for being themselves. As stated by Meg Bashwiner, “the Venn diagram of witches, people who support same-sex marriage and ‘Welcome to Night Vale’ fans is a circle.” For those who exist on the margins of society, the incongruity of time and characteristically contradictory reality which define the podcast make it a prefered form of escapism. The characters’ diverse ethnic backgrounds and names are not meant to be punchlines. In this town, discrimination is most likely to occur on the basis of someone’s thorax construction rather than their skin color or sexual identification.
As a fiction podcast, the show’s creative content is unrivaled. The citizens’ lives are interwoven in a way that is characteristic of small-town America, all without disrupting “Welcome to Night Vale”’s reality-bending flair. However, its creators’ fears of excessively illustrating the show through staging dull its distinctive elements, rather than allowing the audience to indulge their imaginations.