That's Not How Mahler Died
nytheatre.com review by Ross Peabody
November 5, 2005
That's Not How Mahler Died is a living, breathing entity that will lure you in, wash over you, entrance you, and, finally, empty you out. 31Down Radio Theater and especially creator-director-designer Ryan Holsopple have built the kind of experience within the walls of the Brick Theater that eludes most theatre most of the time.
The story is a simple one. While Mike Sharpie, P.I., our eternally luckless and often hapless, processed-meat-and-cold-cut-devouring hero, is away, his lonely and bored wife Alma has an affair with cough-syrup-slurping architect named Wally. The affair, and how it plays out—leaving all three motionless and alone—constitutes the entirety of this very impressionistic narrative. The story itself is loosely based on the love triangle experienced by the composer Gustav Mahler that ended his marriage, but the narrative itself is all 31Down: part film noir period detective piece, part meditation on death and loneliness (a tribute to Mahler's obsessions and the last year of his life), and part technical installation. Ultimately, the play is as much about the story as it is about how the story is told. More sensorial theatrical experience than radio play and more performance installation than traditional theatre, Mahler is the kind of supple and alluring pure performance experience that you're unlikely to find in most theatrical venues.
31Down understands the direct and visceral effect of sound in a way most people are unlikely to even realize that they're missing when it's not there. A rotary phone rings. It rings again. It rings again, this time longer. It rings a fourth time, this time for a full 15 seconds. The unnatural plaintive ringing of this phone that takes a total of thirty seconds, tops, gives us more story than a five-minute earnest monologue ever could. We all simply know what that means. It's the essence of "show, don't tell." Add to this Mike’s feckless response to the unanswered phone: “Alma, I wish there was some way that I could leave you a message,” and the whimsy that is also inherent in the show shines through. The use of technical manipulations, intercut with potentially hilarious moments such as DJ Mendel’s Doc Freud lecturing Mike via television, allows the company to fully impress upon the audience a much larger patchwork of a story than a traditional play ever could. The show is so thick with sound and visual cues to the narrative that the very slim text is all that's necessary to tell the story beyond the experience of the play itself.
Holsopple is obviously an artist who agonizes over every detail, as not a moment, a prop, an effect, or a movement in this play is out of place. And I thank him for that. This is also a company that understands collaborative art. Holsopple's partners in technical crime—Jon Luton on lights, Tara Novak playing violin, Mirit Tal conspiring with Holsopple on the set and props, and Keunyoung Oh on video—obviously speak the same language as their director, and it is clear that they can build seamlessly on a communal shorthand.
Actors Lian Sifuentes, Frank Boudreaux, and Holsopple himself as Mike, live in this world completely. This is due to their collective and collaborative understanding of their place in this piece and their ability to hold up that side of the bargain. Unlike in traditional theatre, the actors hold the same (as opposed to greater) weight as the environment, making the media and visual elements (video, radio, sound, the simple play of light off of fog) equal partners in the elaborate telling of the simple story.
Possibly because the meditative aspect of That’s Not How Mahler Died often eclipses the laughs, the show can, on occasion, feel almost too even-handed, but that is a minor gripe when there is such a banquet onstage to take in. When the show ends, and we are all left in silence and complete blackness, the tiny sound of Sifuentes's voice pleading "hello...hello...it's me...I just want to talk,” it’s not only a thin-voiced emotional gut punch, shocking in its lack of environmental decoration, but a tremendously satisfying moment to leave the theatre with.
Musicians and installation artists have understood and explored the impact of sound and sound quality (from the sweetest music to the sound of chainsaws in traffic to the sound of radio static) coupled with environment for decades. But theatre artists have mostly left it to these others to explore these elements. The most notable exceptions to this have been artists like the Wooster Group and Richard Foreman. Finally, with the advent of the Wooster and Ontological-Hysteric offspring that's been in the offing for the last seven or eight years, theatre is finally catching up, and 31Down is riding this wave that will, we can only hope, continue to grow. And I will happily be watching all the way.