Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul

Small Mouth Sounds
Jungle Theater
Review by Arthur Dorman | Season Schedule

Also see Arty's reviews of The Sins of Sor Juana and The Pathetic Life and Remarkable Afterlife of Elmer McCurdy, the Worst Robber in the West


Michael Curran-Dorsano, Jim Lichtscheidl, Becca Hart,
Faye M. Price, Christina Baldwin, Eric Sharp

Photo by Dan Norman
Bess Wohl's Small Mouth Sounds keeps its audience closely watching everything happening on stage. Take your eyes off for a split second, and you are going to miss something. That is because almost everything that happens in this play happens without any speech, so being a good listener just won't cut it. Now running at the Jungle Theater, Small Mouth Sounds takes place during a five-day-long meditation retreat, where six participants take a vow of silence for the duration. The exception is the (unseen) Teacher, who leads the group through their experience, sometimes droning on in an androgynous voice as if to rub in the advantage they have over these supplicant students.

Not speaking does not mean not communicating, but it does make connections more challenging—most of the time. Lust, when it occurs, seems fairly easy to convey without words. Other interactions, however, depend on gestures, facial expressions, pointing to written documents, and an occasional grunt, and often go misunderstood. The setting is a rustic camp, with wooded trails, a lake, and three adjoining cabins in which the six retreaters are lodged, two per unit.

During their group sessions, the six are seated in a row facing the Teacher, whose voice comes from the rear of the house, which means they also face us. We can see how they react in different ways to the directions and heavy-handed attempts by the Teacher to sound mystical and profound. We can see how something the Teacher says triggers an impulse to laugh in one of the six (an impulse that is more or less stifled), something else prompts a look of extreme distaste in another, affirming the obvious fact that these six fellow travelers have each arrived with heavy back stories about which we know nothing. It seems, though, in the nature of an audience to figure it out as best we can.

So what we know, or figure out as the five-day retreat, inserted into 100 minutes of stage time, passes, is this: Jan, an older man who seems least concerned about trying to communicate with the others, conveys a sweetness and cluelessness. Rodney is a perfectly fit male specimen who, even before the retreat begins, assumes difficult yoga poses perfectly and with an inner calm. He also projects an awareness of his appealing body and visage. Ned is a nebbish-looking man just entering middle age. He is kind, attentive to his fellow retreaters, and really, really into listening to the Teacher, nodding vigorously at any statements that seem intended to convey wisdom.

Judy and Joan are a couple who arrive together, but are out of sorts with each other, signaled by their bickering over whose fault it was that they had trouble following the directions to the retreat site. The last to arrive is Alicia, noisily intruding on the quiet calm already established. She is oblivious to the disruption she causes with music audible through her headphones, dropping her heavy bags on the ground and noisily taking out her stuff, Worst of all, she is fixated on her cell phone, which of course is forbidden. It should be noted that, because no introductions are made among the six, we never know their names—with the exception of Ned, who arrives wearing a name tag.

Through the course of the retreat we learn more about each of these six people, their frailties and travails, their quirky habits and noble gestures. We see them in their cabins, with simultaneous action in each of the three units, forcing us to pay attention to multiple tracks. Where do we look? What might we miss? It is both exhilarating and a little maddening. In other scenes they wander on trails or catch the sun at the lake—all merely suggested by Mina Kinukawa's elegantly stylized setting. With neither visible renderings of their surroundings nor verbal communications between them, must give our full concentration toward understanding all that is happening.

Lauren Keating's direction draws attention to the tiniest of details, giving us every possible clue to follow the course of events, and the flow of feelings. At times there are multiple actions, all synchronized to allow us, against all odds, to have a sense of the whole. At other times, a character may sit in stillness, perhaps lost in thought or trying to experience the inner well-being they came to the retreat seeking, and we are able to take that time out, to pause and reflect on things that have passed.

Michael Curran-Dorsano is heartbreaking as Ned—his name tag a sign of his hunger to make connections. He conveys the whole heart with which he has leapt into this experience, the desperate desire for it to make a difference in his life. Becca Hart expresses Alicia's self-absorption, with a lingering attachment to a failed relationship that is at odds with any hope of achieving serenity, retreat or no retreat. Christina Baldwin, as Judy, conveys an anger and restlessness at odds with her devotion to Joan, while Fay Price imbues Joan with both strength and fear, as she faces a challenging future, and her deep desire to share that future with Joan.

Eric Sharp depicts Rodney's detachment, at the onset, as an illustration of Zen bliss, free of worldly desire, but he lets his true colors show as the days wear on. Jim Lichtscheidl is a kind of everyman as Jan, a gentle presence who asks little of the others, seeking only solace for his wounded heart.

Throughout, the disembodied voice of the Teacher, spoken by Jay Owen Eisenberg, conveys a delightfully faux spirituality, striving for high levels of wisdom meant to serve as an example to these seekers of inner light that falters in all sorts of ways, Eisenberg employs an accent (Tibetan roots are mentioned) that would add to the Teacher's mystique but instead sounds merely theatrical, adding to the feeling that this great teacher may be pulling a fast one.

Sarah Bahr has dressed this band of retreaters in clothes that act as emblems for their disparate personalities and issues. Karin Olson bathes the scenes in light that makes clear the passing of day into night, the encroaching darkness within the cabins, and the returning dawn. Reid Rejsa provides evocative sounds of the wooded retreat center, which allow the aural sensations that make the absence of spoken language all the more noticeable.

Over the five days, the habitués of Small Mouth Voices give us frequent moments of laughter, a generous amount of tenderness, and occasional insights into human nature. The question remains, what do they give to themselves? Small Mouth Voices is great fun to watch, but difficult to form conclusions around, for we know virtually nothing more afterwards than we did at the start about what lies ahead. Perhaps, that is conclusion enough.

Small Mouth Sounds, through June 6, 2019, at at Jungle Theater, 2951 Lyndale Avenue S., Minneapolis MN. Tickets are $35.00 - $50.00. Seniors (60+) and students through undergraduates, $5.00 discount. Friday night discounts: Under age 30 and residents of zip code 55408, $25.00; high school and college students (with valid ID), $20.00. Rush tickets: available two hours before performance for unsold seats, $25.00, $20.00 for college students with valid ID (one ticket per ID). For tickets call 612-822-7073 or visit www.jungletheater.com.

Playwright: Bess Wohl; Director: Lauren Keating; Set Design: Mina Kinukawa; Costume Design: Sarah Bahr; Lighting Design: Karin Olson; Sound Designer: Reid Rejsa; Stage Manager and Properties: John Novak; Technical Director: Alex Olsen; Production Manager: Matthew Earley.

Cast: Christina Baldwin (Joan), Michael Curran-Dorsano (Ned), Jay Owen Eisenberg (Teacher), Becca Hart (Alicia), Jim Lichtscheidl (Jan), Faye M. Price (Judy), Eric Sharp (Rodney).


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