Silence Is Golden With
Small Mouth Sounds
At SpeakEasy Stage
Review by Bobby Franklin
As Bess Wohl’s unique play Small Mouth Sounds now playing at the SpeakEasy Stage begins, six people arrive at a resort in the country for a “silence retreat”. The set is a yoga studio with a small platform toward the rear with six chairs. As each participant arrives they take a yoga mat and find some space on the floor. With the exception of two friends who arrived together, they have never met before. There is some dialog at first, but then the “Teacher” who remains unseen throughout the play speaks to them via a speaker. They are given a list of rules that include no talking for the time they are there. This makes for an original, funny, and touching play. Her telling of the Frog Parable is a riot.
With few exceptions, the actors perform without speaking a word. They do not do mime, but rather resort to doing what we all would do; they improvise ways of communicating without speaking. At times this is like being in a country where you don’t speak the language and are asking for directions. Beyond that, they also convey emotions with body language and facial expressions, some are extremely funny, others very touching.
Watching as they struggle to at first overcome the awkwardness of sharing space with strangers, something that goes with gatherings such as this, while not being allowed to communicate is a bit uncomfortable. It is something we have all had to deal with at one time or another, though usually not with the restriction on speaking. Of course, awkwardness does make for funny moments. Angry, puzzled, and inquiring looks are exchanged. The personalities of the characters are quickly revealed, while the emotional suffering that brought each one there is not brought out until much later.
Ironically, the one character with the most lines, the Teacher (Marianna Bassham) remains unseen. The tone of her voice moves from New Age guru to prison warden to frustration and emotional pain throughout the play. The one who is there to teach how to deal with inner turmoil has much of her own.
The name of only one of the six characters was revealed in the course of the play, but they are all named in the program. There is Ned (Nael Nacer) who never takes his hat off, there is a reason for this that is part of his story, Joan (Kerry A. Dowling) and Judy (Celeste Oliva) who have come together and are dealing with stress to their friendship/relationship. Jan (Barlow Anderson) who at first doesn’t appear to be suffering, Rodney (Sam Simahk) a Youtube yoga celebrity who is going through relationship issues, and Alicia (Gigi Watson) who is young and vulnerable while dealing with a breakup. It is quite remarkable to witness how each is able to convey so much about their character while not speaking. There is a particularly touching moment when Jan reveals to Judy the reason for his suffering. He does this with one simple gesture and yet it is incredibly moving.
The entire cast is excellent while Nael Nacer is just wonderful with his many facial expressions and body movements. I would describe him as a clown in the best definition of the term in that he gives such a broad array of emotions while not speaking. His performance is top notch, and while not speaking, he is also the one character outside of the Teacher, who does have a scene where he speaks to some extent. It is a revealing talk about what brought him to the retreat.
There is much that is funny in Small Mouth Sounds as well as much that gives reason to reflect.
There is much that is funny in Small Mouth Sounds as well as much that gives reason to reflect. The idea of taking an extended period of time away from distractions such as our electronic devices as well as not being allowed to communicate verbally is really quite a daunting thought in our 24/7 social media world. While there is much to laugh at in the play, I sense that to a certain degree the audience laughter comes from their own feelings of discomfort with the silence.
While Small Mouth Sounds is somewhat of a parody of New Age style retreats, it is also a reminder that maybe we should spend more time in quiet thought and accept that we can be comfortable with ourselves while facing our inner pain.
Director M. Bevin O’Gara must have felt it a challenge to direct a work that relies almost entirely on body language, but she pulls it all together. Whether you are comfortable sitting in the lotus position on a yoga mat or think this sort of stuff is only for granola eating Cambridge types, you will enjoy this play. By the conclusion you will not be able to help yourself from doing some self reflection. You’ll also be smiling and glad you saw moving and thoughtful play.
Small Mouth Sounds
Through February 2
SpeakEasy Stage Company
527 Tremont Street
Boston’s South End