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Magic Theatre’s ‘Reel to Reel’ is the Sound of a Life in Minutiae

Simple sonic effects pack an emotional punch in John Kolvenbach’s new play.

Zoë Winters


Several times during John Kolvenbach’s Reel to Reel, which debuted Wednesday at Magic Theatre, the audience is instructed to put on sleeping masks to eliminate visual stimulation, and better focus on the sonic dreamscape.

Of course, there aren’t really masks under our seats—this part is a performance within the performance—but the aural voyage the play takes is riveting nonetheless. Just offstage, a crushed soda can makes an aluminum crinkle. “That’s a human femur smashed with a crowbar,” says Maggie, one of two characters at the heart of the production. The sound repeats. “That was a lie. It’s a piece of raw macaroni I hit with a hammer.”

Reel to Reel jumps in time, location, and perspective, but its audio effects—many repeated to the point of familiarity—keep the story together. We follow Maggie and Walter, two New York City artists who meet at a party in the mid-1990s, and rapidly begin a 55-year marriage. We meet them as 27-year-olds, then again in middle age, and finally in their 80s. Walter (played in youth by Andrew Pastides and as a senior by Will Marchetti) is shy and unsure, a would-be filmmaker lacking confidence in his vision. Maggie (Zoë Winters as the younger version and Carla Spindt as the elder) is all charisma and openness. She’s a sound artist who tape records nearly everything—the sound of a washing machine, even—hoping to understand the inner-workings of others’ relationships through the trivialities of everyday banter. Sub-banter, even: The sighs, coughs, creaks, and tics that each of us love and loathe in our mates. As a child, she tells us, she hid her recorder behind her parents’ bed to spy on their private conversations. Mostly, she heard gossip, chit-chat, and snoring, but “two percent of it,” Maggie says, “a pinch of it, is the secret ingredient… the leavening agent. What made them rise. What made them delicious.”

Later, she turns to the sounds of her own marriage: Walter opening the cupboard door oh-so-slowly, its creaking reduced to a series of pops—an sonic treat he knows Maggie loves—until it becomes his habit. The story of a marriage is replayed in sounds that barely register as relevant in the moment.

Winters, playing the younger Maggie, is superb, blending emotional vulnerability and mystery; and Marchetti, especially, as the elder Walter, conveys humor and emotional heft through his timbre, such an important element of the production, especially near the end of the 80-minute production. (No spoilers, but maybe bring a tissue.) The real star of the show, however, is Foley artist Sara Huddleson, who’s able to conjure visceral responses from little more than spoons, bowls, pencils, and a few other everyday props. Nearly all the audio comes from the four players, who sit in chairs just to the side of the action—still onstage—to produce the audio effects. Contrast that to last year’s mind-meltingly high-tech production, at the Curran, of Simon McBurney’s The Encounter, in which the audience wore earphones connected to a 360-degree onstage microphone, disorienting them so completely they were practically convinced they inhabited a parallel universe.

Here, the tools are decidedly more low-tech, and the trip is nostalgic, not psychedelic. Rather than send us into an Amazonian jungle, we’re transported from the end of a marriage to the beginning, and back again. Maggie plays a tape of forks and knives scraping against a plate. Hardly any words are spoken. “We’re at home. You made chicken,” she recalls wistfully. “When was this?” Walter asks, astonished. A forgettable moment from a long life, and a distillation of that entire life, all in a few sounds, reminds us a marriage isn’t really about grand gestures and profound proclamations of love. Mostly, it’s a lot of chicken dinners.

Reel to Reel: Through February 25,


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