Pay no attention to that man in front of the curtain

Ira Glass’s One Radio Host, Two Dancers’

3 minute read
Barnes, Glass, Bass: Charming and pointless.
Barnes, Glass, Bass: Charming and pointless.
Bad art tends to tell on itself. Such was the fate of Ira Glass's experimental One Radio Host, Two Dancers, with Monica Bill Barnes and Anna Bass at the Annenberg Center. Deep within the performance, lurked true art— a heart-wrenching poem by Donald Hall about the unthinkable death of his spouse, the poet Jane Kenyon. But the same work also included a diatribe against the Broadway musical Rent from the late David Rakoff, a contributor to Glass's weekly public radio program, "This American Life."

Why did Rakoff rage against Rent? Because the characters in the musical (based on the Puccini opera La Bohème) who squatted in a building to do their art, actually were— in Rakoff's view"“ poseurs: photographers who took no pictures, writers who did no writing, artists who did no painting. Wearing second-hand clothes and not paying your rent, said Rakoff, did not an artist make. But this notion of performers who were striving but not creating much meaning might well have applied to this rather flat-footed, uncertain performance.

Let me qualify. Ira Glass, with his shock of white-gray hair and lanky frame dressed in an exquisitely tailored suit, is charming as hell. Like his radio persona, onstage he skillfully guided repeated podcasts from "This American Life" with clever asides and self-deprecating wit. And given the popularity of his radio show, Glass had most of the audience in the palm of his hand from the start.

Shameless pandering

But the show's primary conceit—that dance is somehow linked to radio and to the stories he told— seemed misconceived. The dancers—who shamelessly pandered to the audience as they mugged their way through very broad performances— were either clumsily illustrative (hightailing it to a song about Las Vegas) or distracting (stumbling around a set table during a reading of Donald Hall's exquisite poem).

In the evening's most clever number, the two dancers dressed in uptight wool turtlenecks and plaid skirts, flashing their tummies and shoulders in a pantomime of librarians gone sultry, all to James Brown's "Get Up (I Feel Like Being a Sex Machine)". It ended the show with a bang, but how it related to the rest of the performance remained a mystery.

And, yes, watching Glass don his own wool sweater and trail the dancers around the stage was amusing, but once again begged the big questions: Why are you doing this? Why these dancers? Why this connection?

Too clever by half

When "This American Life" works— and it does— it brings you into the lives of people you might not otherwise meet, in the most personal and intimate ways. A recent series on the impact of violence on Chicago high school students proved extraordinary listening, especially when the interviewers stepped away from center stage and shaped the story into a coherent and heartbreaking narrative.

At the Annenberg, our eyes were trained on the radio host and his two dancers, who were a little too obviously pleased with their clever selves. Glass would be well advised to stick to radio, where something must be left to the listener's imagination.

Perhaps Rakoff has it right after all: wanting to be an artist isn't enough.♦

To read a response, click here.

What, When, Where

One Radio Host, Two Dancers. Conceived by Ira Glass. April 20-21, 2013 at Annenberg Center, 3680 Walnut St.

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