All photos by Nile Scott Studios. The cast. Digesting.
Presented by SpeakEasy Stage Company
By Bess Wohl
Directed by M. Bevin O’Gara
Critique by Kitty Drexel
Trigger warnings: penis, simulated pot smoking, heavy moaning
It’s January and chances are that you (or your acquaintances) are experiencing an influx of athletic practitioners in your studio of choice. For example, at my own neighborhood ashtanga yoga studio, January 1 meant that the floor became overwhelmed with novices and their wholesome, divot-free mats. Small Mouth Sounds(SMS) captures that awkward group consciousness of baby-yogis talking first “did I make a huge mistake?” steps towards enlightenment. An enlightened mind is not obtained overnight. The journey is schadenfreude for the audience.
Jan (Barlow Adamson), Rodney (Sam Simahk), Ned (Nael Nacer), Joan (Kerry A. Dowling), Judy (Celeste Oliva), and Alicia (Gigi Watson) are on a silence retreat. The goal is to experience a week of no phones, no computers, no hassle, and no talking. Especially no talking. Human speech or conversation is only allowed during Q&A sessions with The Teacher (Marianna Bassham as the disembodied voice of God) and then the rules are clear: no life stories, questions only. As in ashtanga yoga class, the characters of SMS stop resisting their self-enforced predicament, breaking the rules, and lean into their chosen path. Eventually.
Audience members should be aware that the majority of SMS is conducted in near silence. It’s fascinating look into how much humans can communicate through touch, gesture, posture, and nonverbal noises. A handful of audience members fell asleep, occasionally woke up and fell asleep again. A decent experiential comparison would be of this play to 2001: A Space Odyssey. If one stayed focused and alert through that infamously silent movie, one will remain satisfactorily awake during SMS. Please note that 2001:ASO and SMS are not otherwise comparable.
SMS’s cast delivers reliable but powerful performances; it’s a great show and deserves as many sold out performances as it can get. But, the real draw is O’Gara’s direction and Wohl’s script. O’Gara plays with space with both comical and severe effect. Wohl forces her cast to look within and to each other for sustenance. The cast adapts to O’Gara and Wohl beautifully, but I’m not given the impression that their performances would be so memorable under different circumstances.
Additionally, Wohl and O’Gara cause the audience to examine their own responsorial noises. The actors are limited in their communications and as a result so are we. Human beings, even ones off display are noisy. SMS asks us to notice how we interact with squeaks, grunts, or laughter to the performance. Noting when and how the audience responds with its own small mouth sounds can lead to a different kind of cognizance.
The design elements of SMS work hard at world-building. The lighting design by Annie Wiegand assists in cementing the audience in the performance. Without her subtle cues to direct our attention, the audience would miss a significant chunk of the silent drama unfolding onstage. Sound design by Elizabeth Cahill assists. She reminds us where we are and how well the retreat is going for all participants.
Disabled community members please be aware: the seating for SMS is arranged in bleachers and lacks middle aisles. Side-seating of the SMS stage is arranged in long rows with 15 or more seats. Stairs leading up to the upper rows are narrow and unlit. Chairs are packed closely together. Space is limited and will not allow those with a walker, cane, or limitation great range of motion. This may apply to some patrons of size as well.
Floor-level seating has the audience at the very edge of the stage. Anyone in a wheelchair may sit at the end of either stage left or right. Actors enter through all of the nearby floor level entrances and will need to pass wheelchair or guide dog users. Suffice to say, the seating arrangement is not conducive to accessibility. I urge potential audience members within the community to please communicate your needs and limitations when purchasing tickets.
Our characters are asked if it is right to find peace when “the world is at war.” One could argue that enlightenment can be found no other way than directly through the path of wars private or public. One would require a lot of confident pretension to do so, but sure. What’s true regardless is that we’re all working with our own trauma. Therapists can be just as insightful as master yogis and come at a fraction the cost. To each their own.