Arts theater review

Make some noise for ‘Small Mouth Sounds’

Bess Wohl crafts a funny and moving character-driven drama from silence

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The cast of 'Small Mouth Sounds' starts their silent retreat.
Nile Scott Studios

Small Mouth Sounds
Written by Bess Wohl
Directed by M. Bevin O’Gara
Calderwood Pavilion at the Boston Center for Arts
Jan. 4 – Feb. 2

Influenced by Zen Buddhism, John Cage’s famous 4’33’’ challenges audience members to focus on the ambient sounds around them by having the performers abstain from playing their instruments for the duration of the piece. In a similar fashion, Bess Wohl’s Small Mouth Sounds demands from the audience an attentiveness to the play’s six characters, who partake in a spiritual retreat during which they are not allowed to speak. Guided by an unseen sermonizing guru, the six people hilariously struggle to adapt to their new lifestyle while desperately wanting to communicate their personal traumas. Despite the challenges of staging such a play, SpeakEasy Stage’s production of Small Mouth Sounds skillfully rises to the occasion through the efforts of its all-around exceptional cast and design team. Visually elegant and moving, the production finds a natural flow of comedy and drama, giving the audience enough questions for introspection without the need of an actual silent retreat.  

In Small Mouth Sounds, silence functions comically as a rule to be broken and as a tool of miscommunication. Nael Nacer, who plays the character Ned (recognizable by his hat), is excellent at garnering laughs from these situations. Especially notable scenes are: when he attempts to stop his roommate (a yoga teacher played by Sam Simahk) from humming, or when he performs an improvised ritual dance reminiscent of Sorcerer Mickey from Fantasia due to his inability to voice his confusion.

Silence also functions dramatically as a way to define characters through their actions alone and to create suspense. For example, Gigi Watson’s hurried footsteps while overloaded with bags, Kerry A. Dowling’s devil-may-care entrance armed with a Starbucks cup, and Celeste Oliva’s cold shoulder speak volumes about their characters in a way that is heightened by the relative silence. Suspense is also created by withholding information through silence, especially in the character Jan (played by Barlow Adamson), who shares very little yet hints at his background early on by placing a picture frame near his mat. This cleverness in using silence to flesh out characters without the luxury of verbiage is just one example that makes Small Mouth Sounds an absorbing and rewarding experience.

The play’s set design is simple yet effective in its evocation of Zen Buddhism through paper screens covering the lights, wood flooring, and rectangular tiled lighting reminiscent of tatami mats. The environmental ambient sounds and the thrust staging also effectively convey the themes of isolation and vastness without being overly distracting. However, the integration of these elements with the thrust staging sometimes leaves much to be desired. Much of the action of the play is directed towards the rear center of the theater, which receives the brunt of Marianna Bassham’s comically loud lip smacking as the ironically curmudgeonly spiritual teacher. Due to the play’s reliance on facial expressions and gestures, the issue of only seeing an actor’s back becomes exacerbated.

I am somewhat hesitant to praise the play’s gimmick as a true innovation, since it is not unlike the silent library skit or plays which have incorporated ASL. There is also some improbability towards the end of the play which requires suspension of disbelief as the play makes a victory lap to violate every established rule and have every character emotionally crumple. Yet the metatheatricality of Small Mouth Sounds makes for theater that is ultimately rewarding to see. Aside from the heightened awareness brought on by silence, there is a moment when the guru exhorts the others to change their lives after becoming exasperated by the repetition and lack of response, questioning whether someone can really turn around their life in five days. Why do people expect the same in roughly two hours from theater? How is an actor, having gone through the rigmarole of many performances, supposed to connect to an unspeaking audience? These reflections make Small Mouth Sounds, already entertaining and visceral by the strong cast and creative team, an exceptional live theater.