"Small Mouth Sounds" at the Alliance Theatre, October 04-27, 2019
Since the site is not allowing the posting of reviews in its normal place, the backlog of my reviews will be going to the forum
Title: Silence Is Golden
Bess Wohl’s "Small Mouth Sounds" takes place at a silent wellness retreat. Each day, the unseen teacher (the excellent January LaVoy) introduces the day with a speech, then the six members at the retreat are expected to spend the rest of the day in silence. Some succeed better than others in the attempt, but the action of the play is largely wordless. Consequently, the success or failure of the production depends largely on the expressiveness of the actors and the activities the director has them engage in.
Leslie M. Taylor’s scenic design represents a woodland shelter upstage, a pebble path passing it. Downstage are three squares on the astroturf, each representing a two-person tent with a wooden threshold. The background of the set shows Lacey Erb’s projections, starting with rain and transitioning to woodland scenes as the weather changes. Ms. Erb’s lighting represents time of day very nicely, aided by Clay Benning’s sound design, full of rain sounds at the beginning, transitioning to crickets at night and birdsong by day.
The projections have a bit of a cartoonish feel at times, with big ripples and fireflies in different scenes. Susan V. Booth’s direction also has cartoonish moments, with a chance encounter leading almost immediately to (offstage) sex and with the actors removing one piece of clothing before jumping (offstage) into a lake, otherwise fully clothed, although the initial orientation session indicated that clothing is optional at the beach. It all seems designed to keep the show running at a quick pace.
There’s a fine line the actors have to tread in performing silent scenes. Courtney Patterson and Jeremy Aggers have expressive faces that let every nuance show. Owais Ahmed, Andrew Benator, and Ericka Ratcliff have more impassive faces. Alexandra Ficken is at the opposite extreme, becoming almost cartoonish in some of her reactions. The mix of styles seems disjointed.
Nicole Clockel’s costumes tend toward the new age-y garb becoming the participants in a new age-y wilderness retreat. They all work relatively well, with even a bear costume coming into the mix. Props are quite good, with each person’s belongings giving a bit of insight into the character of the owner. Posters in the lobby give additional background for the characters.
Andrew Benator is the only onstage actor entrusted with an extended vocal performance, as he takes the microphone during a Q&A session. He does nicely in the monologue, basically relating his depressing recent history before forgetting the question he was about to ask. Since the teacher had previously requested participants to ask succinct questions, without reciting their full life story, this whole sequence acts as a cartoonish joke.
The pleasures of "Small Mouth Sounds" are small ones, with isolated moments and a final sequence tugging at the heartstrings. Overall, though, it’s a comedy. Particularly during nighttime scenes when all three tent squares are fully populated, there can be a lot going on, with different sections of the audience getting better or worse views of particular interactions between tent mates. It all goes down easy, but it’s the sort of experience one forgets soon after it’s over. The lessons of the retreat seem immediately lost on all the participants but one.