by Richard Hinojosa · March 25, 2015
Erik Lochtefeld, Babak Tafti | Bem Arons
Charlie Chaplin said, “To truly laugh, you must be able to take your pain and play with it. Playwright Bess Wohl takes this notion and bats it around like a kitten with a ball of yarn in her vivid new play Small Mouth Sounds. Wohl is able to say more in play without many words than other plays that have mouthfuls of dialogue. I cannot remember the last time I was so thoroughly engrossed in the minutia of every action and expression from lights up to blackout.
This is not to imply that the play has no spoken words – it does and what is spoken is perfectly placed in the script to support everything that is unspoken. At the opening orientation, we hear the voice of a guru-god who is the spiritual leader of a woodland retreat designed to help city dwellers find their lost identities. The golden rule at this retreat is silence so the retreaters mostly rely on gesture. The gesturing and made-up sign language is awkward at first but as the retreaters become more accustomed to it, and to each other, so do we. It was not long before the audience settled in and began to laugh at the slightest expression or gesture. The evening is indeed filled with belly laughs that are delicately underscored with the very personal pain of the play’s characters. Small Mouth Sounds is at its very best as we gradually become privy to the characters’ pain and loss. This is not a vacation for them. They have come to make a significant change in their lives or to reconnect with a part of themselves that has been trampled by the calamity of life.
Wohl’s script unfolds clearly and intentionally so that the characters’ transition from fidgeting with their information packets at the opening orientation to nodding in peaceful understanding is believable and justified. There is not a missed intention or thought due to lack of dialogue rather quite the opposite. Our faces can say so much more than words ever can. Wohl uses this to create a hilarious and moving play.
The truth is, this script would simply not work if it weren’t for the production’s amazingly talented cast and director. Director Rachel Chavkin knows precisely how to draw focus just where she wants it. There are times when the entire cast is on stage and there is action in different quadrants of the stage but I never felt as if I was missing something. Nothing is ever upstaged or lost in a frenzy of movement and gesture. This is quite a feat when staging a play on this long narrow Ars Nova thrust stage. Chavkin also impresses a very even style of acting on the cast so there are no actors who push their expressions over the top. They all stick to simplicity and realism.
It looked to me as if the cast was having a great time with Wohl’s script. I was taken in by Sakina Jaffrey’s character Judy who could not hold back her uncomfortable laughter as well as by her partner Joan (Marcia Debonis) who could not stop speaking (or snacking). JoJo Gonzalez voices a guru that is equally soothing and inspiring, as he is hilarious. I loved the often times contentious relationship of the yoga-loving Rodney (Babak Tafti) and the outdoorsy Ned (Brad Heberlee). Heberlee’s question/non-question speech is particularly memorable for its depressing nevertheless awkwardly upbeat delivery. Erik Lochtefeld’s character, Jan, is so loveable that you just want to take him home with you. I found myself laughing at his expressions of confusion and sincerity most often. Jessica Almasy’s Alicia is the slightly neurotic/chaotic girl we all know. I connected a lot with her carefree yet desperately sad character. Together, the cast takes the script to a higher level.
Small Mouth Sounds is what theatre can be when it throws off the chains of dialogue and uses instead the international language of gesture and facial expression. It is an intimate experience that will remind you that your face tells a story to the world every day and the story you tell reflects what is deep within you. Bess Wohl has given us a story that should not be missed.