Cecil Baldwin reads from Will Eno / glows from his forehead third-eye
If you’re an internet person – and, if you’re reading this, chances are good that you’re an internet person – you’ve heard of Welcome to Night Vale. The weird little-podcast-that-could following the goings on of a distinctly odd little community in the Southwestern United States has become a bonafide sensation: #1 podcast on iTunes, a touring live show, and a forthcoming novel from the creators. If you haven’t listened (or if, like me, you take a break for several months and then go back), go spend a quirky half-hour with Cecil, community radio host, and the delightfully weird cast that populates the town. You will leave wondering, as I did when I started listening, where these ideas came from.
The Night Vale gang’s Selected Shorts attempted to answer that question at least a little bit. Instead of a traditional introduction from Matthew Love, we were welcome by Cecil Baldwin himself reading the prologue from Will Eno’s play Middletown, his magnificent modern Our Town. Entrance applause and eager laughter (you might say over-eager, in some corners) greeted the sweetly weird and weirdly sweet monologue – and when Matthew Love appeared to briefly introduce the team behind WtNV (Jeffrey Cranor & Joseph Fink), they wasted no time explaining just why Will Eno was important to them. And of course he is: his brand of oblique intellectual writing (not to mention the off-kilter quality of Middletown specifically) fits right into the Night Vale aesthetic.
And so that’s, in one way or another, what we got: things that fit into the Night Vale aesthetic. Some of them were obvious: the aforementioned Eno, a short story by Shirley Jackson (more on that in a bit), beautiful and somewhat knotty poetry. Some of them were less obvious: short plays meant to be done in under 120 seconds, a Mallory Ortberg piece from The Toast, songs(!!!) by John Darnielle. And yet all of these things, the minute they were brought up, somehow made sense. Night Vale is just like any other place in the world (even if it has angels and ghosts and faceless old women who live in your home) so why wouldn’t it have as diverse a background as… well, anything else?
Of course, some of these things fit the format better than others. Regular readers of the blog will know that I’m a theater guy by profession and so I could get into it with you about the New York Neo-Futurists (the whys, the meanings, the way they fit into the cultural landscape). This is not the time or the place. Including four short Neos plays made sense: Joseph Cranor, Cecil Baldwin, Dylan Marron, and many of the other WtNV gang are Neos members past and present. But the Neo-Futurist aesthetic, despite its rigorous stripping of theatrical convention, is an inherently theatrical one – and just reading the pieces at music stands may’ve left non-theater-goers wondering how they differed from any of the other shorts read last night. So, too, the Mallory Ortberg piece. Ortberg’s work at The Toast is high-functioning internet humor with an impressive batting average – but, stripped of its context (that on-screen moment where you scroll down, often surrounded by friends who you’ve called over to share this or that hilarious bit), it seemed a little out of place in the evening.
On the flip side, I have to assume it’s pretty rare that the Selected Shorts crowd gets a serenade (let alone three of them) – and John Darnielle could (and perhaps should) have a Selected Shorts night dedicated to his work. Quite probably the best lyricist working today if not ever (and author of a gobsmackingly tremendous novel), each of his songs packs – as Fink said in his introduction – whole stories into not just a few paragraphs but a few lines. And he was on hand with a piano and that instantly identifiable voice to provide, as they might call it on the Night Vale community radio airwaves, the weather. It was a rare treat to see Darnielle perform and I’m pretty much speechless about it, to be totally honest. That new record (“Beat the Champ”, out next month) is going to be amazing – he played a new song, “Luna”, that had the crowd absolutely rapt even as the clock ticked heavily towards 10pm.
But the point of Shorts is that, well, we get short stories read by incredible actors – and so I’ve saved the best for last. There were several other pieces I won’t get to mention: original shorts by Fink, poems by Anis Mojgani and Tony Kushner and Patricia Lockwood, and more (they really packed it in this evening, putting together a chock-a-block show that felt overflowing even at 2.5 hours)…. but I have to talk about the Yoko Ogawa and Shirley Jackson stories.
The incredible Marin Ireland, one of my absolute favorite actresses, was on hand to read Ogawa’s “Lab Coat” – a story out of Revenge, a collection I’ve always been intrigued by. It was introduced as having an everyday life sort of horror… and for the most part, that’s exactly right. But I’ll be damned if Ireland didn’t conjure up the creepiness from moment one and then let it build until the shudder-inducing ending. She was mesmerizing and coy, switching between the two women of the story with ease, making it clear that both were somehow… not right… even as they seemed as normal as anyone who might work with you or me. It put the Ogawa collection straight onto my list for my trip to the October Country this year.
And then Cecil came back to read Shirley Jackson’s “The Beautiful Stranger”, a story I was to this point unfamiliar with. The night was starting to wear long and the crowd (a mix of Night Vale fans and Selected Shorts fans – definitely an unusual blend) was getting a little antsy… but Baldwin’s sonorous voice, simultaneously calming and dreadfully alarming, brought everybody back. Baldwin is a perfect reader for an author like Jackson, whose menace builds so slowly, twists you so calmly, that when the end comes you are stricken in place even as you see the horror approach – this is to say, his voice can do that. It is an incredible instrument. He weaved Jackson’s tale of a woman whose husband comes home from a trip only for her to realize that it might not in fact actually be him (even though he appears unchanged from when he left) with delicacy, first letting it be a funny riff on marital itchiness that then slowly took on a more salacious tone before, finally, slamming home with the unmistakable dread-filled terror that is suburban life. Fink’s final short piece, “Let Me Tell You About New York City” was a welcome palate cleanser, reminding us that we don’t live in that terrifying place called suburbia but, instead, in a different kind of terrifying place: New York City.
But with Selected Shorts pulling off consistently unique programming – this night felt kind of unlike anything I’ve ever seen at a literary or theatrical event; it was a mashup of so many things in an inherently youthful & “modern” way – it’s a nice kind of terrifying. Stay weird, New York – and stay cool, Selected Shorts. And to steal a line from Cecil himself: “good night, listeners. Good night.”