“Small Mouth Sounds,” Bess Wohl’s play about six characters who are attending a silent retreat , contains almost no dialogue, but it speaks volumes. It is a satire, but it treats its subject with respect. It is a comedy, but it slowly reveals each individual’s tragedy. In the hands of Rachel Chavkin (whose many recent successes include “Hadestown” and Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812), and its exquisite seven-member cast (four of whom were in the original production at Ars Nova last year), “Small Mouth Sounds” is a remarkable work of theater.
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At the beginning of the five-day retreat, the six people gather one by one, sifting through their welcome packets and sitting in a row on folding chairs, while the “teacher” addresses them with standard New Age speech and more prosaic rules (“Smoking is not permitted….Clothing is optional at the lake, but required in all other locations.”) The teacher (JoJo Gonzalez) is never seen, only heard over a booming microphone – a little like the Wizard of Oz. And indeed he proves to be just as fallible (if not quite as fake), his missteps played for gentle laughs.
Over the five days of the retreat, the campers attend daily lectures, adjust to each other and their rustic tents or cabins (represented in Laura Jelinek’s set by nothing more than mats), have little adventures in the woods (which are suggested minimally but effectively by projection designer Andrew Schneider and especially by sound designer Stowe Nelson.) Along the way the characters also obliquely reveal themselves to us. “Small Mouth Sounds” is reminiscent in this way of Annie Baker’s ‘Circle Mirror Transformation,” a play about a community theater group in Vermont that seems to be about the theater games they perform, but is actually about the hurried interaction that gives us glimpses into their lives, and insight into their character. Wohl’s play goes one step further, giving us these glimpses mostly without words, through the subtlest of gestures.
So, for example, we see Jan (Max Baker) take out a framed photograph of a child and place it at the head of his sleeping bag; we eventually figure out that his son died. We also see that there is tension between Joan (Marcia DeBonis) and Judy (Quincy Tyler Bernstine), a lesbian couple – the most talkative people in the group – and we eventually learn the reason; one of them is apparently seriously ill. Alicia (Zoe Winters) is the most obvious mess, showing up late, her belongings falling out of her like Pigpen, unable to part with her cell phone, or get over the guy who’s broken up with her whom she keeps calling on it. Rodney (Barak Tafti), the only one who takes full advantage of the nudity option, seems the least troubled, spending much of his time in yoga poses, but by the end of the play we learn that he too is in agony. Ned (Brad Heberlee) is the only camper to voice his traumas explicitly – the only one to engage in a question and answer session with the teacher in which he forgets to ask a question and instead catalogues the series of hellish catastrophes that he’s lived through – loss of his health, his career, his wife, his identity (he was the victim of identity theft.) Now he volunteers with an environmental group, which puts him in touch with not just his own suffering but the earth’s. This leads him to wonder whether he really should be trying to “find peace” in all this suffering. “I keep thinking that maybe we shouldn’t be at peace… because to be at peace in a world that’s… at war… just seems…wrong?”
All of those on retreat, then, are looking for relief for their suffering…or at least, their suffering has prompted them to search for answers. Is their spiritual quest for answers no more than small mouth sounds to a higher power?
Without much dialogue, the audience sometimes has to guess what’s going on in “Small Mouth Sounds,” turning it into an especially difficult game of Charades. But if the ambiguities prompt some bafflement and even frustration, they also help us to empathize with the characters’ own lack of clarity, bringing us closer to people whom the playwright, director and performers have so distinctly etched for us.
Small Mouth Sounds
An Ars Nova Production At Pershing Square Signature Theater Center
Written by Bess Wohl
Directed by Rachel Chavkin
Laura Jellinek (Scenic Design), Tilly Grimes (Costume Design), Mike Inwood (Lighting Design), Stowe Nelson (Sound Design), Andrew Schneider (Projection Design), and Noah Mease (Prop Design)
Cast: Max Baker, Quincy Tyler Bernstine, Marcia DeBonis, Jojo Gonzalez, Brad Heberlee, Babak Tafti. Zoe Winters,
Running time: 110 minutes with no intermission
Tickets: $75 to $99
Small Mouth Sounds is scheduled to run through September 25.
Update: Extended to October 9, 2016