Thursday, February 8, 2018

"Reel to Reel"

Reel to Reel
John Kolvenbach

Will Marchetti & Carla Spindt
What does a marriage of fifty-five years sound like?  Her middle of the night mumbles, snorts, and snores?  His habit of opening a squeaky cabinet ever so slowly to hear each tick?  Her end of day footstep that is “like a sack of flour dropped off a three-inch cliff”?  His upset voice that “sits on the back of his throat and there’s sandpaper run through it.”  Her sigh?  His sigh?

A play that is meant to be heard and not just seen, John Kolvenbach’s Reel to Reel is an aural delight, several laughs every of its eighty minutes, and yes, sigh-producing with its heart-touching story of a marriage so ordinary to be nothing short of extraordinary.  Currently receiving its world premiere at Magic Theatre, Reel to Reel is directed by the playwright himself, capturing the spontaneity and fun of a radio play as the stellar cast of four both portray their parts and also orchestrate dozens of sound effects.  The result is one of the most infectious, inventive, and entertaining Bay Area stage productions of yet this still-young year.

We first meet Maggie and Walter – both at the age of 82 -- in 2050 in a flat that looks untouched in décor or technology since they spent their first night there together in 1995.  Maggie is busy at her desk, meticulously working on the tape of a reel-to-reel player (which even back in 1995 would have been ancient), with Walter commenting, “You’re the last splicer alive.” 

Maggie has spent much of her life cataloguing and labeling the noises around her -- the first being her mother’s washing machine which she still listens to when anxious.  (She even re-recorded a noodle cracking 600 times, just to get it right.)  Along the way, not only has she recorded much of her and Walter’s quirks and quarrels, she secretly recorded as a girl 4144 minutes of her parents’ private moments in their bedroom – all of which she uses now as a stand-up entertainer, Maggie Spoon, in shows where her audience put on airline masks to enjoy her act better. 

(By the way, if I were to go see this show again, I would do the same.  It would be a hoot just to hear without the distraction of sight the fabulous sounds of John Kolvebach’s script and these actors’ verbal and sound effect skills.)

Will Marchetti, Andrew Pastides, Zoë Winters & Carla Spindt
The lives of Maggie and Walter alternate between this fifty-fifth year and their first year, with two sets of older/younger actors rising from their onstage chairs with music stands and scripts (think radio play) where they also slam doors, snap sticks, pop balloons, or swish water in a gallon milk container for a myriad of Maggie’s recorded sounds.  While scenes alternate between these two ages along with the ages of 42 and 80, sometimes the various-aged actors interact with each other, sharing hilarious observations about their partners’ idiosyncrasies from sounds to shapes to smells and filling in each other’s incomplete sentences.

- Maggie 1: “I watched a crease appear, on the side of his mouth, a vertical line, and it would go away and then come back and then it stayed; it held fast.”
- Maggie 2: “I named it.”

- Walter 1: I don’t like to admit it, it gives her too much power, but her calves.”
- Walter 2: “My wife’s calves lower my IQ.”

Such fantastically rich language of the playwright rings forth throughout with other lines like “You smell sometimes like earth that’s been heated and is moist ... A mushroom could grow in how you smell” or “On the side of your ass is a hollow ... it’s shaped like a big contact lens, you could store an ounce of water in there.”  The power of John Kolvenbach’s script is that he has Maggie and Walter say things that most of us would never, ever have the creativity to say but can immediately imagine wanting to have said to someone we love.  The lines are delivered as part of everyday lives whose sounds were recorded and preserved by a technology so out-of-date but somehow so wonderfully fresh and alive – in 2050 ... and even in 2018.

Will Marchetti and Carla Spindt are the older Walter and Maggie, each magnificent in many subtle nuances of portrayal.  Mr. Marchetti’s Walter often speaks with a twinkle in his voice that is so loving and adoring of his Maggie while still acting as if irritated at her inattention while she splices away.  Ms. Spindt’s Maggie is a gentle soul who loves to tease her husband one minute and then act impatient or indignant the next of his constant prodding and questioning, all the time equally returning a sense of love that has aged well over the fifty five years.  (Her Maggie is particularly impressive to watch when she is sitting in on the sidelines, listening intently and reacting to the other Maggie/Walter pair; her expressions are priceless.)

In almost opposite contrast to the older is the younger Maggie, played in award-worthy manner by Zoë Winters.  Her Maggie from the get-go has a sharp edge to her, whether rapidly speaking in paragraphs with hardly a breath or staring forever at Walter while not making a sound or a move.  She is impulsive and impetuous, unpredictable and unbending, determined and devilish.  She is also heads over heels in love with a Walter who at first has no idea who she is or why she wants him.  Ms. Winters is a stand-out in every regard among an ensemble of absolute stars.

Andrew Pastides is also a winner as the younger Walter who often appears as a deer frozen in headlights, particularly as he first meets the invading Maggie (whom by the way shows up uninvited to his apartment even before he knows her name with a suitcase and a reel-to-reel recorder, never to leave again).  He speaks in a manner mild and almost monotone -- except when he first starts freaking out over Maggie’ presence and then over her sudden absence.  He is clearly the younger of Mr. Marchetti’s older Walter, as Walter stays consistent through the years with a sense of half always searching for something lost, half of always knowing he has found it in his Maggie.

The Cast of "Reel to Reel"
Erik Flatmo’s simple yet highly effecting set design establishes the ageless, rather plain apartment that could be in any big city, with huge windows looking out onto nowhere interesting and with the same utensils and clutter from the past fifty years.  The lighting of Wen-Ling Liao provides the bland look appropriate for this apartment while also giving a dreamlike, memory-lane set of shadows and spots.  Meg Neville dresses both Walters in a robe just as comfy and shabby in 1995 as in 2050 and also dresses the Maggies in outfits befitting a woman curious and daring in her youth, sparkling and settled in her twilight.

Magic Theatre, the home of so many world premieres for decades, premieres a Reel to Reel that is destined to have as long or longer life than Maggie’s recording of the washing machine.  This is a play to see, to listen to, again and again.  In my opinion, John Kolvenbach’s Reel to Reel is a ‘must-see’!

Rating: 5 E, MUST SEE

Reel to Reel continues through February 25, 2018 at Fort Mason Center, San Francisco.  Tickets are available online at or by calling the box office at (415) 441-8822.

Photos by Julie Haber

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