The unruly brain and bad habits of a writer, actor, and grilled cheese sandwich-enthusiast.
“No sound, once made, is ever truly lost. In electric clouds, all are safely trapped, and with a touch, if we find them, we can recapture those echoes of sad, forgotten wars, long summers, and sweet autumns.”
– Ray Bradbury, Now and Forever
I’m the sort of tech nerd that would instantly notice and recognize Foley equipment when I see it. As I took my seat and looked over Erik Flatmo’s detailed loft set, I noticed a doorknob for recreating entrances and exits, a reel-to-reel audio recorder, a guitar hanging from a pillar, and a metronome that I believe never gets used in the play. I also immediately saw four chairs at four corners of the stage, each with a music stand in front of it. Personal experience told me that the person who lives here is either a musician, a sound designer or editor, or Gene Hackman in The Conversation.
We learn that these objects are both a part of the story and not part of the story. What I mean is that one of our two main characters, Maggie, is a professional sound recordist partial to the analogue reel-to-reel equipment we see – that’s how it’s part of the story. The four chairs are for actors not in the scene proper to use as stations for their live Foley work and to provide the voices of characters we never see – that’s how the objects aren’t part of the story. This production is as much a live radio show as it is a staged performance.
But there’s a difference between this show and a one-note technical exercise like Simon McBurney’s The Encounter (which played at The Curran last year): namely, it’s the fact that this story uses sound in service of its story rather than a replacement for it. The sounds created between lifelong lovers Maggie and Walter create a portrait of their relationship that wouldn’t be as clear if we were simply told. “I’m all ears,” Maggie tells Walter at the start of their relationship. “I know people just say that, but for me, it’s actually true.”
The triumph of writer/director John Kolvenbach’s new is that every sound – nay, every moment – is worth taking in.
When we first meet 88-year-old Walter, he tells us that he and Maggie have been together for 55 years. “Fifty-five years and three months,” she corrects him. He tells us that nobody thought they’d last, and it’s easy to see why: a stuffed shirt like him doesn’t seem like all too good a fit for such a direct and open person like her. But get together these young artists did, and we get to see and hear a great number of moments from their life together.
Still, as Maggie informs us, “You can’t know someone else’s marriage.” So, it’s from the scenes we witness that we get the image of a life shared by two people. Unremarkable, perhaps, but full of unique moments for those who bother to listen.
As I think back over the story I saw last night, I find myself thinking of all the way it shouldn’t have worked. I mean, the “how we met” story has been done to death, and the clean-cut-guy-meets-free-spirit-girl story has been done even more. Fortunately, Kolvenbach makes several wise choices: first – his lovers, particularly in their younger forms, are characters, not caricatures (ie. Maggie is never a Manic Pixie Dream Girl); second – he avoids the sort of rom-com grand gestures that are just creepy in real life; and third – both the young and old versions of Maggie and Walter change over the course of the play. That’s what happens in relationships: they change you; for better and for worse.
Also, I’m pretty sure MPDGs never have jobs, and we learn pretty quickly that Maggie does sound professionally. She also regularly puts on live shows that gather a cult following. They consist of her having the audience wear sleep masks (no, not we, the actual audience) as she narrates a collection of sounds she’s edited together. Having recorded nearly everything since she was a child, she describes her sound tapestries as akin to her grandmother’s knitting patterns: all disparate pieces that form a compelling whole. When she first meets Walter at a party, he’s a bit puts off by her habit of taking long silences, which she does to absorb the sounds around her.
I don’t recall ever learning what Walter does for a living, and not clarifying that enough is one of the script’s flaws. We do learn he’s a film-maker who eventually produces one “passion project” that’s quickly forgotten by the public. But it’s the direct audience-address scenes work in Kolvenbach’s favor. In these scenes, both Walter and Maggie’s younger (Andrew Pastides and Zoë Winters) and older selves (Will Marchetti and Carla Spindt) detail the collection of sounds – snoring, laughing, clicking knees, slow-closing cabinets – that made by their significant others. If you’ve ever been in a serious relationship and taken a moment to focus on your partner’s idiosyncrasies, you’ll see yourself in these exchanges.
Though Kolvenbach’s script is unapologetically sentimental, it’s never too cute for its own good. One of the best scenes is when Young Maggie is moments from leaving on a plane for an assignment, and Walter acts like a passive-aggressive shit – seemingly for no other reason than to be a passive-aggressive shit. They’ve reached a critical point in their relationship and rather than say what he means, he attempts to provoke her into an argument in such a way that he won’t seem as if he’s provoking her. With a play composed entirely of montages, it’s the realism of scenes like these that make these characters familiar and compelling to watch.
And it doesn’t hurt to have good talent involved. Zoë Winters allows Young Maggie emotionally vulnerable without needing to be “fixed,” and Andrew Pastides is able to show his affection without being a total creeper. Carol Spindt and Will Marchetti bring a lot of heart to Elder Maggie and Walter. Both the inflections of their voices and their physical reactions to one another created a detailed portrait of two people who have been together so long they each other’s routines by heart. Another great scene involves the elder couple trying to hold back laughter as they listen to a recording of their younger selves arguing. In addition to the main two characters, each actor eventually moves “off-stage” – which usually consists of one of the aforementioned chairs with music stands – to voice several unseen characters: Maggie’s parents, radio announcers, and Walter’s ex Betty (who represents the script’s other major flaw: not clarifying his relationship with Betty better – when he first calls her, I thought she was his sister; that she’s actually his ex isn’t made clear until near the end). The voices of the actors don’t much vary in these other characters, but it’s easy to know when they are other characters.
And yes, the four actors perform live Foley work. This includes everything from a water jug to represent Maggie’s favorite recording of crashing waves to an acoustic guitar playing the score for Walter’s film (a score which sounds suspiciously similar to the opening of Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven). The cues were designed by Sara Huddleston, and like all great Foley work, it adds to the action without taking away from it – no small feat, considering the actors are performing it in front of us. They easily combine with Wen-Ling Liao’s lights to create moments that are public, intimate, hilarious, and heartbreaking. Great work all around.
There’s a moment in this play when Young Walter hesitantly agrees to Maggie’s suggestion – nay, insistence – of starting a relationship. “No one ever thought I was worthy of this much desire,” he says. “That’s because they’re deaf to you,” she replies. The scariest part of loving someone is realizing that they will eventually understand you better than you understand yourself, and vice versa. That sort of exposure is neither easy nor guaranteed to last, but finding that sort of connection is an irreplaceable experience.
Reel to Reel is about two people who, one could argue, are nothing special. But the point is they’re special to one another. With the aid of a talented cast and skilled technicians, John Kolvenbach crafts a story we intentionally only see (and hear) in pieces. The result is a strung-together tapestry that neither talks down to its audience nor chastises them for feeling the same as its characters do.
Reel to Reel is scheduled to run until the 25th of February at the Magic Theatre in San Francisco’s Fort Mason Center.
The show runs roughly 90 min. with no intermission.
For tickets and information, please visit the production’s official site here.
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