Friday, October 27, 2017

"Small Mouth Sounds"

Small Mouth Sounds
Bess Wohl

The Cast of Small Mouth Sounds
What happens if we allow silence to dominate our world – at least the silence of our own voices?  What might we hear if words no longer clutter our day-to-day lives?  In Bess Wohl’s 2016 Off-Broadway hit, Small Mouth Sounds, six seekers of needed solace arrive for a week of forested retreat, reflection, and possible resurrection from various personal traumas and tragedies – a week where they are to refrain from any talking except when directed by their Teacher. 

With talk being mostly absent during the one hour, forty-minute production now arriving on tour at American Conservatory Theatre’s Strand stage, what emerges is a brilliantly conceived, inventively directed, and superbly acted collage of silent interactions that are hilarious, touching, titillating, heartwarming, and often, tearfully sad.  The result is a one-act play that seems to fly by in no time, that takes the audience on a roller coaster ride of emotions, and that entertains to the max during every passing minute – all accomplished by stripping away the words and leaving us with subtle (and not so subtle) gestures, grimaces, and Small Mouth Sounds.

The Cast of Small Mouth Sounds
One by one, six retreaters arrive to find six folding chairs lined in a row such that they do not look at each other but look at us and at a Teacher that we never see but only hear.  Jan (Connor Barrett) is a tall, middle-aged man who appears to be a combination of nervous, scared, and yet eager.  Rodney (Edward Chin-Lyn) immediately rolls up his tight jean grinning and assumes various yoga positions in his bare feet while “ohm-ing.”  With a tight-knit cap on his head, Ned (Ben Beckley) comes in quietly and non-assumedly whereas twenty-something Alicia (Brenna Palughi) arrives late and loud, bundled in enough coats for Alaska and with a bag full of what appears is likely contraband (no food, drinks, or cell phones allowed).  In between those latter two, Judy (Cherie Snow) and Joan (Socorro Santiago) enter clearly as a couple of at least friends if not more, with Joan’s face full of wondrous anticipation and Judy’s full of mixed horror and disbelief that she is actually there.  And from somewhere in front of them and behind us, a voice dripping in guru wisdom begins the week with “There was once a little green frog.”

Orville Mendoza is the supposedly well-known and celebrated Teacher whose voice is the predominant one heard during the entire play.  He gently spills forth in sing-song fashion platitudes and phrases right out of many a self-help book.  He also openly shares his own personal dreams of the previous night and current woes that have nothing to do with anything.  To a mixture of confused and amused faces, he recounts, “Last night I dreamed a lawn mower was mowing a lawn” while another time he is almost giddy about little blue pills he is taking for his cold.  And yet we and the six-in-silence soon begin to realize that any learning and insight gained from this week is not likely not to come from the Teacher’s lectures but from what they discover through relationships that begin to develop, build, and even blossom (or wilt away) with no words attached.

Each of the six in retreat has a number of moments of acting brilliance.  Some occur as they head to their humble nightly place of rest -- a bare, wooden floor that appears as Scenic Designer Laura Jellinek’s raised and boxed-in meeting room recedes silently into the background.  Finding their ways among invisible doors and walls, the six unroll their bamboo mats onto the floor in pairs of two roommates.  We soon get to watch through Rachel Chavkin’s deliciously delightful direction three sets of roommates settling in (or not) to their first night together.  Much fun ensues for us as an audience, if not always for the paired roomies. 

Roaming somewhere outside are the neighborhood’s bears, a threat that will eventually lead to the evening’s biggest round of guffaws from the audience.  And the moon in the wilderness sky is not the only moon these meditators (or we) are going to see shining as clear as daylight in the dark of night.

But for all the laughs we get to have at this group’s expense, there are increasingly almost as many stunning and serious moments where we and they learn why each has come to this retreat.  Past pain still very much present is common among the six for a variety of personal reasons – from lost loved ones to life-threatening illness to a series of personal tragedies that even a National Enquirer reporter would find hard to believe.  Confronting their own and each other’s pains and finding ways often tender and always unspoken to comfort are some of the most memorable moments of the evening for us as audience.

Cherene Snow
To a person, each actor is uniquely wonderful in the role cast.  Facial expressions speak volumes like Ms. Snow’s ways of turning Judy’s crunched up frown into a sudden smile that lights up her whole being.  Equally proficient at broadcasting many emotions with never a word spoken is Ms. Santiago’s Joan, who almost bursts at times with glee from a sudden ‘ah-ha’ and at other times, lays bare raw feelings kept deep inside.

Ben Beckley & Edward Chin-Lyn
The wild spin and whirl of all four, lanky limbs becomes tornadic as Connor Barrett’s Jan is constantly attacked by unseen mosquitoes (while no one else seems to be bothered) while the pantomimes used by Mr. Beckley as his Ned tries to negotiate personal space with his roomie Rodney are fabulously fun to watch.  Rodney himself, as portrayed by Mr. Chin-Lyn, is without an ounce of fat or a slither of modesty as he proudly pumps his muscles, stretches his every tendon, and prances around in yoga-like calm (while making sure everyone else is watching). 

Brenna Palughi
But among this cast of stars, Brenna Palughi particularly stands out in her portrayal of the oft-discombobulated, awkwardly out-of-place, and yet thoroughly intriguing Alicia.  Alicia is actually the only attendee whose intention for being there is never discovered by her cohorts or by us, but those swollen eyes that are nearly always on the verge of tears speak volumes for what must be going on deep inside.  The person who most defies all the rules (cell phone on under her blanket at night, bags of chips and Gold Fish snuck into the cabin, gum smacking during the group sessions – for just a few examples) is also the one who diligently writes down every word the Teacher says and who keeps looking with sad but hopeful gazes at the carefully folded piece of paper where she has written her goal for being on this retreat.  Ms. Palughi may be the one person we learn the least in “facts” but the one that definitely leaves a lasting impression of what it means to face one’s demons with gumption and courage.

Ms. Jellinek’s stark but beautiful set is put into forested context by three back panels of projections designed by Andrew Schneider that bring the beauty of the wilderness into our awareness.  In a play without words, other sounds play a big role, and Stowe Nelson’s sound design allows the even smallest of sounds to take their place on the stage and in the story.  Mike Inwood’s lighting compliments the overall staging while Tilly Grimes costumes provide character descriptions that we miss from no verbal introductions of each person.

So much occurs with so little said in this wonderfully fascinating production of Small Mouth Sounds.  This is a play I could easily see a second or third time because there are so many cues simultaneously coming from this superbly directed cast as they each discover in themselves and in each other what the Teacher describes as “your brilliance, your juiciness, your specialness ... your enlightenment.”  They and we learn, “All you have to do is listen.”

Rating: 5 E

Small Mouth Sounds continues through December 10, 2017 at American Conservatory Theater’s Strand Theater, 1127 Market Street.  Tickets are available in person at the Geary Theatre Box Office, 405 Geary Street Monday – Friday 10 a.m. – 6 p.m. and 10 a.m. – 4 p.m. Saturday and Sunday or at the Strand Box Office Monday – Friday 10 a.m. – 4 p.m. (or curtain).  Tickets are also available at 415-749-2228 and online at

Photos by T. Charles Erickson

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