There's no doubt you're watching a live radio drama when you watch The Intergalactic Nemesis.
The actors bring their characters to life behind an old-timey microphone and a sound effects operator uses the whirl of a Little Tykes cement mixer to mimic the sound of a robot scuttling across a floor. Graphic novel-esque images are projected on a screen behind them.
Surely it would be hard to feel scared or sorry for the characters' plight, or to laugh at their idiosyncrasies, when they're not fully realized before you. But somehow these elements do combine to make you feel all of those things, forming one of the most unique live storytelling experiences currently on stage.
"It's almost like a cinematic experience while there isn't any animation in it," says Jason Neulander, the creator and co-writer of The Intergalactic Nemesis, a touring show visiting Dallas City Performance Hall for three shows at 8 p.m. Thursday, Friday and Saturday. "It has the feel of watching an animated film except that you're getting to see all the voice-over work, sound effects and musical accompaniment live in front of your eyes."
The live sci-fi radio play/graphic novel is in its 20th year of continuous touring. It has played for over 200,000 people in the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom and Australia, and even appeared on Conan O'Brien's TBS talk show.
Intergalactic Nemesis started at the Salvage Vanguard Theater in Austin when artistic director Neulander and the rest of the theater's leadership thought it would be fun to do a live, sci-fi radio production. They recorded the first session in a coffee house and put together a serialized radio show for a five-week run in front of a live audience.
"We just had a complete blast doing it," Neulander says. "Every once in a while, we would return to the format with a larger body of work and we thought The Intergalactic Nemesis could have a life of its own."
Some years later, the theater received an invitation to do their radio show in a larger theater at Dell Hall at the Long Center for the Performing Arts. The theater had just purchased a new projection system and Neulander says they were looking for an excuse to use it. So they hired artist Tim Doyle to draw some comic panels that introduced the graphic novel element to the show's already unique concept.
"I'm an old sci-fi purist this way but I love the idea of a trilogy," Neulander says, explaining why the show features three novels.
The story opens in the 1930s in Europe's Carpathian Mountains, where Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Molly Sloane and her assistant Timmy are chasing a story about smugglers who mysteriously disappear in a blinding blizzard. One of her contacts finds a curious map on the corpse of one of the smugglers and brings it to a tavern.
"Just as he's about to explain, a figure appears in the doorway with a knife and stabs the contact," Neulander says. "Another stranger grabs the assassin, throws him in the fireplace, and that's when she realizes that she's just stumbled upon the story of the century. That's the first four minutes of the show."
The Intergalactic Nemesis has the pulpy feel of an old-fashioned adventure comic where danger lurks around every corner.
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"We all grew up on Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark and we all had a love for storytelling inspired by [them]," Neulander says. "This was our low budget way of doing that. I wasn't a big comic book nerd by any means but I grew up reading the pulp, sci-fi short stories and masters of that form. I have a very clear memory of watching Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers serials with my dad on Saturday morning when they were broadcast on TV back in the day."
The show may sound like something that appeals uniquely to comic book lovers, but Neulander says the story and combination of different performing arts has something to offer everyone.
"Comic book nerds will absolutely love this show but it has a broader appeal than that," Neulander says. "The format is so unique that it just pulls you along."
See The Intergalactic Nemesis at 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, May 12-May 14, and 2 p.m. Saturday, May 14, at Dallas City Performance Hall, 2520 Flora St. Tickets are $25-$45 at attpac.org.