Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Small Mouth Sounds: Six Characters in Search of...

Small Mouth Sounds

Written by Bess Wohl
Directed by Rachel Chavkin

A.C.T's Strand Theater
1127 Market St, San Francisco
October 11- December 10 2017

Reviewed by Christine Okon

Small Mouth Sounds at A.C.T Strand Theater begins with a serene, stark room with six chairs in a row, a simple setting not unlike Spirit Rock or Green Gulch. Soon, the chairs are filled with people who awkwardly try to communicate without speaking as they gesture, smile, shrug, giggle. We soon learn that they have come to a silent retreat, with the only voice being that of the guru, the unseen Teacher as he explains the rules of schedule and expectations in a lilting, soothing, unplaced accent.

Retreat Attendees: Ned (Ben Beckley); Alicia (Brenna Plughi); Jan (Connor Barrett); Rodney (Edward Chin-Lyn); Judy (Cherene Snow); Joan (Socorro Santiago)

The retreat is silent, but the characters soon reveal their own internal noise, the noise of disappointment, failed relationships, grief, confusion, regret, curiosity. Like a memorable silent film, the real punch is packed without words.

The silence is a wonderfully engaging and effective device by playwright Bess Wohl in that it sparks the curiosity, anticipation, and ultimately catharsis of the audience. It’s fun getting to know the characters, all superbly cast. There’s Ned, the intellectual worrier on edge with his own vulnerability, captured so earnestly by Ben Beckley.
Ned (Ben Beckley)
Joan (Socorro Santiago) and Judy (Cherene Snow) are partners who learn to at last listen to each other during the silent retreat. Edward Chin-Lyn endows his character Rodney, a minor celebrity in yoga circles, with a bodily presence as lithe and strong as a big cat and an ego to match. (The small mouth sound that Joan utters upon seeing him is pretty funny.)
Ned (Ben Beckley) and Rodney (Edward Chin-Lyn)
Then there’s Alicia, a complex bundle of nerves, tears and raw emotion so convincingly played by Brenna Plughi that you just want to comfort her.
Alicia (Brenna Plughi) and Ned (Ben Beckley)
To me, the most intriguing character is Jan, a sad enigma so in need of a voice for his pain, compassionately rendered by Connor Barrett.
Jan (Connor Barrett)
All of these characters are confined within the rules of the retreat, guided by the voice of the Teacher (Orville Mendoza) who, even after leading countless retreats, is still grappling with his personal challenges. Imagine Sartre’s No Exit with deep belly breathing and mindful intentions.

Gradually, we get glimpses of each character’s history of pain, loss, stress, confusion. Each has his or her own wants; each hopes for answers to unrealized questions.

Director Rachel Chavkin brings Wohl’s simple but potent script to life, making this production work well on so many levels. The seeming spontaneity of the characters’ interactions is the result of many rehearsals and practiced choreography, with every gesture chosen deliberately. And orchestrating small mouth sounds of the characters to create meaning, humor, emotions, and story is quite an accomplishment.

If you go see Small Mouth Sounds, don’t be surprised if you find yourself a bit changed, or at least wondering.

Connor Barrett - Jan
Ben Beckley - Ned
Edward Chin-Lyn - Rodney
Orville Mendoza - Teacher
Brenna Palughi - Alicia
Socorro Santiago - Joan
Cherene Snow - Judy

Scenic Designer: Laura Jellinek
Costume Designer Tilly Grimes
Lighting Designer: Mike Inwood
Sound Designer: Stowe Nelson
Props Designer: Noah Mease
Video Designer: Andrew Schneider
Associate Director: Lauren Z. Adleman
Production Stage Manager: James Steele
Assistant Stage Manager: Megan McClintock

PHOTOGRAPHY:  T Charles Erickson