Friday, April 26, 2019

“Small Mouth Sounds” is Something to Smile At

Cast of Small Mouth Sounds (Annabel Clark)

Small Mouth Sounds
Thalia’s Umbrella
(at 12th Avenue Arts)
Through May 11, 2019

Six people walk into a silent retreat week…. It is kind of a joke, right? And there are definitely moments that are very amusing in both the set up and the small exchanges, either of uneasiness or stranger-interaction. That’s all part of the experience watching Bess Wohl’s quiet play, Small Mouth Sounds.

Since the retreaters are not supposed to talk, at all, you might wonder if you’ll be watching a play with no words… Does that mean it’s a … dance? Or a mime? If there is no speech, does that mean it’s not a play anymore? Well, if you didn’t wonder that, you’re better’n me, cuz I surely did. But actually there is definitely some speech and a very specific storyline.
 
The people do seem to be a bit stereotypical, at least at first. As they line up in chairs right next to the audience, and open packets of retreat information, a guru or mediation guide, with the requisite vaguely Indian accent, speaks through a microphone at them. Is it live or is it Memorex? they might ask.

There’s an over-eager, anxious guy wanting enlightenment (Adam St. John), an older man who we think might have lost a child (Terry Edward Moore), a lesbian couple with issues (Ina Chang and Bridget Connors), a single woman unhappily out of a bad relationship (Sara Dabney Tisdale) and an already enlightened yoga-type who is so “spiritual” he’s gone into jerk territory (Douglas Ridings).

We begin to get to know each participant and their relationship to the others as the roughly 100 minutes unfolds in a series of time-lapsed scenes throughout the course of the weeklong retreat. Of course, the guide tells them, and the audience, at the beginning, that if they give themselves over to the process, they have an opportunity to be transformed and leave as a different person! Quite a promise.

One aspect of Thalia’s Umbrella that I appreciate is the focus on “adults” and choosing plays with older characters. It’s not all 20- and 30-somethings or high school dramas. Many times, that means the plays focus on the many decisions people have already made in their lives and they can reflect back on those and perhaps decide to choose differently in the future. This play is like others chosen, in that way. But also, often, there’s a trend toward humor, as well. It’s never bad to laugh at life.

Roberta Russell continues to impress with her sleek staging. Here, at first we only see a row of chairs on a movable platform. But when the platform is moved, we focus on the subtle fabric hangings against the back wall that look like tree trunks of that forested retreat. It’s elegant. Her lighting scheme also specifically delineates rectangles on the floor which are clearly small sleeping rooms.

It’s fun to identify with or secretly snigger at the participants. The guide ends up being another amusement as he also grapples with his own burning issues, including cell phone interruptions of his own! As expected, no one leaves so completely changed after one week, but we’ve gotten to know them all a lot better, and it’s an enjoyable, if quiet journey.

For more information, go to www.thaliasumbrella.org

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