By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca
“When you see the ocean, you may not be able to return. To the well.”
– Small Mouth Sounds
The play that gets its Canadian premiere tonight in Theatre Network’s Roxy Performance Series is a theatrical puzzle of sorts, in every way — for the director, for the actors, and for the audience.
Small Mouth Sounds is mostly silent — in premise, conception and execution. The play, by the American actor-turned-playwright Bess Wohl, is set at a silent meditation retreat in upstate New York. Six strangers, troubled and lonely in various ways, have repaired there in search of solace, or answers, or release. On this journey they are led by a guru, present only as a disembodied voice.
So … how to stage it? “The actors are silent for 90 per cent of their time onstage,” says Jim Guedo, artistic director of Wild Side Productions, who’s been trying for a couple of years to get the rights for the 2015 play. He was fascinated by the challenge, and refers to the American director Peter Sellars who has famously said of a play he’d read that “I didn’t know how to do it. So I had to do it….”
The playwright herself had the experience of a silent retreat, says director/ designer Guedo. The setup in the play is authentic, “including the packet that tells (the participants) what’s optional, what you’re supposed to do, and what you’re not supposed to do…. The ultimate challenge for the characters is the need to put away everything in your life that made you want to come to the retreat in the first place.”
There are hints of Waiting For Guffman, and (Annie Baker’s) Circle Mirror Transformation, with its needy community theatre participants, in the scenario, Guedo agrees. But ultimately Small Mouth Sounds isn’t like either. “Depending on how you’re feeling when you see it, it’ll be either incredibly funny or incredibly sad. Every character is looking for … something. A fix. That’s the human comedy.”
“It’s a very different kind of storytelling,” Guedo says of his attraction to the script. Silent, yes, “but not silent movie.,” he laughs. “(The characters) are not world-class mimes.…” The “perversity of it is appealing,” he says. “In theatre we take words, dialogue, for granted….”
In one way, the experience for his all-star cast has been “liberation: no lines to learn,” he reports. Wohl’s stage directions, which are basically back stories for the characters, have many more words than the script.
How then do we discover who the characters are? “It calls for a different kind of specificity,” says Guedo. Like the characters trying to connect with each other, “the audience is looking for non-verbal cues.”
“You reveal character not just by what you do but how you do it,” says Guedo. “I feel like I’m the midwife, and (the actors) are doing all the pushing….”
Intriguingly, the guru/teacher is on a mic, “so the disembodied voice is not quite human.” That voice might conceivably be taped. But that approach doesn’t breathe in the same nuanced way as having an actor (Nathan Cuckow) present to interact, though invisible. “There’s a lot of verbal jazz in people’s breath, in the noises we make, the small mouth sounds, when we’re not speaking.” In rehearsal, Cuckow sat across from his cast-mates at first, facing them. “Gradually we weaned him off being physically present….”
To read the script is to wonder if the teacher, as a new-age-y sort of guru, is an object of mockery. “But the playwright does not want to take easy pot shots….” Guedo thinks of it as “gently satirical.”
“All the characters have a private pain, a weight on them. And they’re trying to dislodge it…. This is a very human play, very compassionate.”
Small Mouth Sounds
Theatre: Wild Side Productions in the Roxy Performance Series
Written by: Bess Wohl
Directed and designed by: Jim Guedo
Starring: Amber Borotsik, Belinda Cornish, Nathan Cuckow, Kristi Hansen, Dave Horak Richard Lee, Garett Ross
Running: tonight through March 24
Tickets: 780-453-2440, theatrenetwork.ca