Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Small Mouth Sounds: All that is Unspoken

Photo credit: Ben Arons

"I must admit to you now.  I have no plan."

There's something about a heavy rain that makes you think maybe it will wash away all the pain. But the poetry of rain is often far from the reality of rain. Usually it just makes things wet and soggy. So like the idea of seeking spiritual comfort from an outside source, sometimes it does not quite deliver on its promise of change. It's an idea that comes to life in Bess Wohl's (Pretty Filthy) smart, sadly funny play Small Mouth Sounds set around a spiritual retreat which brings together a group of strangers each carrying some pain in their life.

Off in the woods, these characters at the retreat take a vow of silence.  Small Mouth Sounds becomes highly dependent on the actors to tell the story with very few words. With minimal mugging and mostly unspoken grief we experience their almost entirely silent spiritual journey seeking answers from an unseen, distracted guru (Jojo Gonzalez).  With Wohl's eye for detail, Rachel Chavkin's gentle direction, and strong performances across the board we quickly know these people-- A woman who is quick to tears, with her life spilling out of her bags, and the complete inability to follow any of the retreat rules (Jessica Almasy); the loving couple who are grinning and bearing the agony of one of them being ill but there is a rising tension between them (Marcia Debonis, Sakina Jaffrey);  A father who dotes on the picture of his daughter (Eric Lochtefeld); An attractive yoga instructor who is on the outside the picture perfect student but completely selfish and self-involved (Babak Tafti); The wannabe spiritualist who tries so hard at everything, lives by every rule, wants so much, but nothing goes his way (Brad Heberlee).

With scenes oscillating between lectures from the guru, simple domestic moments as the characters unwind in their tents in the wilderness, to retreat activities, the characters do a lot without saying a lot. Surprisingly the play still holds together which is a testament to the creative team.  What could have been merely an acting exercise becomes a well-structured and supported dramatic story.

As the characters are told to listen to the silence, so must the audience.  Every gesture, action, and interaction becomes the clues we have to follow.  Everyone wears their pain differently.  They cope by reaching out and connecting with their fellow retreat-ers, or not.  Even without words, we can still see conflict, understanding, familiarity, love, attraction, lust, confusion, acquiescence, and rebellion.  It's a full spectrum of the human experience without those pesky words to get in the way.  Although at the start we can only guess at exactly what ails each one, eventually their specific stories become more complete.  And there are moments of sublime connection and disconnection.  A flirting scene gets hijacked by another man such that one character is left standing alone in his sad white underpants of defeat.  Someone who thought they were truly understood by another, discovers things were not quite as they thought it was.  As the characters struggle, exist, open themselves up, try, fail, and fall short, we can see ourselves and our imperfections in all of this.  It's exactly what you want out of a good play and everyone delivers.

The cast make this all so messy, awkward, and real. It's rare to watch a play where every performer is an equal to each other but here they work together as an ensemble to make the story happen.  And for all the serious issues being addressed, the play (and the performers) carry the comedy with the same confidence.  I'm surprised I have not seen most of these performers on stage before (I saw Almasy in Beautiful Day in November and Tafti in Rajiv Joseph's The North Pool) but I'm going to look out for them in the future.

The entire production just clicks.  As we are encased in a blond wooden box (set by Laura Jellinek) with projections of rain, ponds, trees, insects, and the natural world (projections by Andrew Schneider), and the thumping sound of rain and rumbling of thunder (sound design by Stowe Nelson) it does feel like we've gone upstate and gotten away from the city for a while.

It's a delight to experience exceedingly talented people, doing effective and meaningful work as they are here.  Chavkin should be credited with taking this challenging piece of writing and making it look effortless. 

I received a complimentary ticket to attend.

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