HOW DO YOU ADDRESS LIFE WHEN WORDS FAIL US, BESS WOHL’S NEW PLAY TAKE US ON AN INNER JOURNEY
SIX RUNAWAY SOULS FIND THAT SILENCE DOESN’T ALWAYS BRING INNER PEACE IN THE BRILLIANT ‘SMALL MOUTH MINDS’
The Holidays are here and what better way to divert the stressful weeks ahead than to take a short retreat to rest into a silent zen like mode. American Conservatory Theatre opened Bess Wohl’s new play SMALL MOUTH SOUNDS now on stage at the Strand Stage through December 10th. Playwright Wohl “American Hero,” “Pretty Filthy” explores the culture of retreat weekends or week workshops. Wohl’s said “This play was inspired by a silent spiritual retreat I participated in at the Omega Institute in upstate New York. Like that retreat, much of the action of the play happens without words.” Directed by Rachel Chavkin, The Great Comet this company is part of a seven month national tour making its first stop on the West Coast. Six brilliant actors take us on this 100 min one act that by the end of their silent madness has taken us on their experience.
The story takes place at a retreat center somewhere in the woods, we meet six city folk who are running away from their real lives. In the overwhelming quiet of the forest these strangers confront their inner demons both profound and absurd. They discover many things, but the human need to connect makes this story with little words one of the best evenings of theatre this fall season. The focus is on six of the people: Jan (Connor Barrett), Ned (Ben Beckley), Rodney (Edward Chin-Lyn), Alicia (Brenna Palughi), Joan (Socorro Santiago), and Judy (Cherene Snow). The rule of the retreat is “In Silence” and they are not to speak during the duration of the workshop. The person who we do hear off stage is their instructor played by the mysterious Orville Mendoza, who we never meet or see. The teacher tells all the jabber zen talk you hear at retreats telling stories about peace inner fear, frogs, oceans, and using all the speak of enlightenment they paid well to listen too.
Mendoza’s voice is eastern with a tinge of madness, you get the feeling from the beginning that this guru may be as “in need” as his students. He welcomes the participants and sets the ground rules after opening the session with a story about two frogs that inspires a lost look in some of the guests. He tells them “clothing is optional at the nearby lake, although all nudity must be in the spirit of respect, community and adventure.” Cellphones are not allowed “except in the parking lot, inside your vehicle, with all doors and windows closed.” No refunds, no exceptions. And, of course, no talking." The dialogue on stage is rare if not at all, but each actor's emotional story told through their body language is easy to listen too.
The talented Ben Beckley’s who is Ned the neurotic Beenie Man has the most lines as he becomes part of the question and answer session with his teacher. His anxiety and fake side are so well done both with his words and silence. All the six are interesting and each actor brings their finesse to the Strand Stage.
Tickets online at www.act-sf.org.
Photos by T. Charles Erickson
Chin-Lyn’s portrayal of Rodney the hip enlightened yoga instructor, is the perfect guy who has his life together until one new friendship distracts his whole cool guy image. Chin-Lyn keeps busy the whole 100 minutes with charming at times erotic body language that teases the cast, and good portion of the sold out opening night audience.
Judy played by the passionate Cherene Snow shows her facial expressions and betrayed true feelings without having to utter a word, especially when having to interact with her partner, and close friend Joan played by the superb Socorro Santiago. The lovers are a highlight as we watch them communicate in silence showing their glee and sadness. The wild annoying Alicia who enters late in the introduction, is played the accomplished Brenna Palughi who takes Alicia from the brat to the women we sympathize the most. The tall woodsman Connor Barrett’s silent performance of Jan is touching, as he dances from the flying insects to torture of his own lose in his life.
The set is a boardroom type clean design by Laura Jellinek that fits in nicely with the play’s location, but I still wanted to have more space. Director Chavkin is known for her work with “site specific productions” like her Tony nominated “The Great Comet of 1812”. SMALL MOUTH was originally stage in smaller spaces so the audience was part of the retreat and face to face with the cast. Chavkin still brings that feel with this proscenium arch design. We are forced to sit facing these six and become part of their journey. Stowe Nelson’s nature feel sound design brings the rain and thunder rumbled under our feet. The use of projections was effective, and does give the sterl set that needed open feel. Jellinek set does have some surprising movement as the lake in the second act comes to life with Chin-Lyn’s splash of energy.
“You have come here to meet yourself,” says the boss during one of his talks, and without resorting to anything but mugging and hand movement, they transmit the characters’ anxieties, affections and sadness through facial expressions and physical movement, all elegantly choreographed by Chavkin. Wohl brings the new age era with all its fakeness and realness to almost that sitcom timing, then pulls back so we can see ourselves as each of the six attempt to discover themselves. The Guru boss has his own breakdown and it is the highlight of the 100 minutes.
SMALL MOUTH SOUNDS does not have that clear understood ending, and of course it could take all six into the sunset of happiness, but what fun would that be? As the characters awkwardly hug and say goodbye to each other, its clear their stories are not complete. Wohl’s play confirms how wonderful silence can tell stories. I was moved by the production and often felt I was part of their experience because Wohl doesn't give us all of the back story about these people, so we end up attaching their stories or inner madness to their struggles. Nothing is final the teacher tells us “Think of this retreat as a vacation from your habits. Your routines. Yourself. It is the best kind of vacation because after this you don’t ever have to go back to who you are.”
American Conservatory Theater’s Strand Theater, Presents
Small Mouth Sounds
by Bess Wohl
Directed by Rachel Chavkin
Through December 10, 2017
Connor Barrett, Ben Beckley, Edward Chin-Lyn,
Brenna Palughi, Socorro Santiago, Cherene Snow.
A.C.T.’s Strand Theater
1127 Market Street
Running time: 1 hour 40 minutes, with no intermission
Tickets are available in person at the Geary Theatre
Box Office, 405 Geary Street
Tickets are also available at 415-749-2228
and online at www.act-sf.org.
Photos by T. Charles Erickson
SMALL MOUTH SOUNDS VIDEO PROMO
Edward Chin Lyn - Talks about Rodney