By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca
There aren’t many words in it, but Small Mouth Sounds isn’t what you’d call quiet. The silent treatment is loud in the ingenious, funny, and mysteriously affecting play that the indie company Wild Side has brought us in a superb Canadian premiere production at the Roxy. It’s not to be missed.
In the play, by the young American writer Bess Wohl, six strangers, a mismatched assortment of urbanites who would ordinarily never meet much less spend time together, have showed up at a bucolic five-day silent retreat led by a famous spiritual guru. Each is steeped in private miseries, fears, rage, pain. And as Jim Guedo’s perfectly calibrated production reveals, in a world with minimal verbiage, throat-clearing and eyebrow-raising are major incidents.
Every sigh, cough and grimace, every snort and munch, gasp and giggle, count. Big time. And Nature, as captured and amplified by Guedo’s sound design, is a veritable sound fest: rain, wind, birdsongs, the rustle that could be a bear, the roar that is a bear. The guru himself (Nathan Cuckow), a disembodied, miked voice with an exotic sing-song to it, is a veritable windbag under the circumstances. You can hear his spit rattling around; the spiritual leader has a cold. He also has a cellphone — which he actually answers but hastens to assure is not his own — and issues that are his own.
No cellphones, no booze, no smoking, and no talking (clothing is optional): these are his rules. It’s all a test case for human communication. And there’s comedy in the misunderstandings that arise as the participants, evidently in various states of unease and distress, arrive, and notice each other, or not. Guedo choreographs an all-star cast (all-star but truly ensemble) in the intricately timed and detailed theatricality of this enterprise.
Least anxious is Rodney (Richard Lee Hsi), a perfectly toned yoga instructor with an impenetrable Zen serenity about him, clothes on or off (witness some very funny encounters with other characters). Most anxious — and therefore by the cosmic law of perversity Rodney’s assigned roommate — is furrow-browed Ned (Garett Ross), with a perpetual wince about him. He’s earnestly trying to take notes with a pen that won’t work.
An accomplished-seeming couple (Belinda Cornish and Kristi Hansen) arrive showing some strains in what is evidently a long-time relationship under pressure. They’re already mid-squabble over the directions to the place.
There’s the smiling, slightly dazed Jan (Dave Horak) who nods amiably and keeps dozing off — when he’s not fending off hordes of mosquitoes and scratching his bites. And there’s a late arrival (Amber Borotsik), who crashes in breathlessly, clutching too many bags, muttering “sorry sorry,” Rules notwithstanding, Alicia and her cellphone cannot be separated; she texts frantically, and seems to be coming apart at the seams.
Who are these people and what sorrows, dissatisfactions, miseries and pressures have brought them to this retreat? It’s for us to piece that together, the same way the characters discover each other. And that’s a highly entertaining kind of audience participation, especially since the actors, all of them, are so skilled at making the minutest adjustments eloquent.
Without the carapace of small-talk to fortify (and conceal) themselves, the characters scramble to make themselves understood. Only Ned gets an extended monologue — he’s asking the teacher a question — and it’s delivered with a fragmenting hilarity by Ross.
Ned’s life is a veritable catalogue of tragedies, and the accumulation of them shows just how close human suffering is to a cosmic sense of, if not comedy, absurdity. The world is disintegrating into apocalyptic chaos, and we’re looking for … peace? Ned is wondering if that makes any kind of sense.
But the guru, whose elliptical ways, flights of fancy and declensions into jargon are captured beautifully by Cuckow’s cadences, isn’t about answering questions. Nor is the play.
Instead, there’s a kind of compassionate embrace of the human struggle in all its mysterious dimensions. Do the retreat-ers leave cured of their spiritual malaise? The guru has rejected the idea of exorcism; he’s told his students that the five days are the best kind of vacation since “you don’t ever have to go back to who you were.” There are a lot of variables in that, of course. The only thing that’s certain, though, in Small Mouth Sounds is that there’s a consolation to be had, an affirmation of sorts, that whatever bad things you’re up against, however isolated in sadness and pain you feel, you are not, in the end, alone in this. There’s a human embrace.
It sounds like a morbid and weighty thought. But it doesn’t feel that way, oddly enough. It feels like taking a deep breath and then exhaling.
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 Hsi, Garett Ross
Running: tonight through March 24
Tickets: 780-453-2440, theatrenetwork.ca