Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Small Mouth Sounds by Bess Wohl

Ben Beckley

By Joe Straw

The Broad Stage in Association with Eva Price, Stacey Mindich, Betsy Bernstein, Ars Nova, Catherine Adler/Sean Hudock, Burnt Umber Productions, Amanda Dubois, Rebecca Gold, Sally Horchow, Iris Smith, Craig Balsam/Kurt Deutsch, and Eric Cornell/Jenna Segal present The Ars Nova Production of Small Mouth Sounds written by Bess Wohl and directed by Rachel Chavkin.

I’m not even going to ask about the mouth full in the opening credits of the program.  Suffice it to say it’s a small mouth full.

One can’t give too much away of Small Mouth Sounds, which would probably be giving away the whole thing. So I thought I’d throw out some observations and not mention the full frontal and extreme back-tal nudity.  (Now physically holding my hand to my mouth.)

No one speaks in this show, well, hardly anyone.  Okay, I take that back, they all speak but not a lot, except the teacher (Orville Mendoza) with a heavy Tagalog accent masquerading as a Tibetan monk, one is not really sure if this was by choice, or design.  

But one must step back, and walk in the projected rain, a heavy rain at that, to find meaning in being engaged, and what? Saved? Heightened? Cured? Enlightened? Redeemed? Peace? What?

It all started in a quiet room, a campground place of sorts, a place to get away while that rain poured ferociously outside.   

Jan (Connor Barrett) is the first to arrive.  A lumberjack?  Tall, a quiet a man with established height, a full scraggly beard, and large calves as he enters enters a sterile room, not really sterile, a clean room with a row of chairs. He takes a seat and immediately looks like his surroundings, the outdoorsy type, and one with nature.  He waits.

Rodney (Edward Chin-Lyn), a tall Asian athletic man finds his spot, the perfect place for him to do his thing, on his spot.  He takes off his shoes, rolls up his pants, neatly, and takes little notice of Jan sitting near him.  But from where I sit, Jan takes a good whiff of his wet feet, and it’s not a pleasant experience, while both try to find a connection.   

Ned looks out of place as he comes in wearing an assortment of outdoor wear and a skull cap. For, what reason?  The rain?  Wouldn’t a hat have been a better choice to keep the drops off? Things seems new to Ned.  His eyes are wide open, in amazement, absorbing everything, but he is also lost in his surroundings.

“You said… What did you think I said?”

It could have been Joan (Socorro Santiago) or Judy (Cherene Snow) who said that. I think it was Joan.  Well, Judy was dragging a bag, a brown suitcase, and Joan had an assortment of bags and draped accouterments.   They were friends, a couple, wanting to experience this thing they were going to try out, not a bucket list thing, but just a thing. To find, what?  Happiness? Together in this place? Why not somewhere else?

And so they sat quietly, waiting for the inevitable, the voice, in the room, coming in God-like, via a projected microphone. Teacher (Orville Mendoza) spoke in quiet, calming tones welcoming those who had decided to attend. 

Little was said about the one empty chair.  

Teacher, moved on to a story about two frogs, a green frog in a well, and a traveling frog.  The traveling frog said (because they were talking frogs) to the well frog “Your well is nice, but you should see what I see.”

Well, that story did not end well; the well frog suffers in heightened agony, on the final leg of his journey, opening his eyes to see what he could not imagine.

The group, not getting the relevance, stares in perplexity as the Teacher moves on to explain the practice silence the group must endure throughout their stay there. Then he follows that with a litany of the “no” rules in camp.

Before they are dismissed latecomer, Alicia (Brenna) walks in and expects Teacher to start from the beginning. He doesn’t.  Alicia, dressed from head to toe in snow gear, is left to decide her next move to progress into the program.  She resorts to using her phone to communicate to near dead silence.   

In the truest sense of the art form of acting, dialogue is not needed.  One reality is - the actor must creatively communicate the idea of what he/she wants, without words, and this is true from Shakespeare to Sam Shepard

But what makes Bess Wohl’s play so intriguing is a singular moment in the play that elevates the art into the stratosphere.  It is a moment that won’t be revealed. And perhaps it was my moment, the one thing I got, that put a pinpoint in this work of art. And yet, I’m not sure the characters got it, which may have been Wohl’s intention. Still, this is what I live for, to find a work of art that is peculiar and something out of the ordinary. (Still, the ambiguity of that particular moment was enough to drive me mad.)

Rachel Chavkin directs this group of thespians.  There are oblong morsels of delightfulness, but one is not sure how creative it could have been.  The characters appear to be so ordinary in not so ordinary circumstance and they act in a way real characters would react to strangers.  In the beginning they try to ignore each other.  Later, communicating is a must, and it is very minimal at first with simple hand gestures creating action, until finally they warm up to one another. (In real life we experience this in our daily interaction with strangers.) But how much can a character give before it’s over the top and unrealistic? That is usually settled in the rehearsal. I had an insatiable craving for more creativity, even in the simplest of form and movement.   

All of the characters have conflicts that need wordless resolutions. From the moment of their first night together, that nocturnal quivering of uneasiness, of one in a room alone, combined with the heighten feeling of want, begs for some kind of social interaction. Some get it, and some don’t.

Brenna Palughi (Alicia), Ben Beckley (Ned), Edward Chin-Lyn (Rodney), Connor Barrett (Jan), Cherene Snow (Judy), Socorro Santiago (Joan) 

Brenna Palughi (Alicia) gives us many different sides to the character.  The performance is three-dimensional and furnishes us an extreme view of a woman in a crisis of sorts. One likens her to having attention deficit disorder, not knowing where she is at half of the time.  (And, she has time management issues.)  Still, I thought Alicia was the most complete character, someone who gives, and someone who learns from her mistakes. This is a performance not to miss because Palughi is excellent in her craft and she is someone who gives us a beginning, a middle, and an end to her character.  
Ben Beckley (Ned) provides us with the most information about his character. His monologue explains almost his entirety. Ned is lost and wants to be found.  He blames his feelings on his physical handicap but he is there to find something, or someone. The sense of being lost is in the moment he has the bowl and the match and not being able to figure out what to do.  For the actor, there is more to do, more to play with while he is left there in the silence.

Connor Barrett (Jan) plays an interesting character.  On first look, he appears to be homeless with his long beard and his unkemptness.  But his clothes tell another story, of someone who has money, enough money to take on this journey. But the journey is not completely thought out.  And, what is it about the bug bites and his maladroit ways that garners little in his relationship to his fellow traveler.  Also, what is his objective?  What does he want from these people or this place? One would like the actor to make a definitive choice as to why he is there. These questions were not answered.

Edward Chin-Lyn (Rodney) seems to have ulterior motives in the camp.  He is athletic, loves to show off his body and appears to be in the mood for one thing only.  His libidinous craving was temporarily satisfied animalistic with the assistance of a bear. Rodney seems to have it all together, his health, his body, and his manner of togetherness.  What is moving him in the direction he chooses?

Cherene Snow (Judy) has a very pleasant smile on stage.  Judy finds humor in a lot of things that happen in camp.  But Judy has a physical problem with her kidneys, her back, or her liver while her friend has problems of her own. Something happens in that relationship and it has to do with what that person wrote in her intention. The smallest of things can destroy the best of a relationship, in a matter of a moment, and Snow gives us all of that and more. Spoken words are not the only the silent killers. (One more note: is there a more creative way to deal with someone’s nudity?)

Socorro Santiago (Joan) plays a woman dying of cancer.  She appears to be letting the disease run its course, trying different things, and enjoying life before she passes.  But she harbors a big secret and the secret is in the note that she loses - which her partner reads. It is a mistake that she is unaware of and she is unable to convey her meaning because of her code to silence.

Orville Mendoza is excellent as Teacher. Teacher is widely known through various media, which is why these people are here living temporarily in an area of seclusion.  Teacher, from the Philippines, is masquerading as a Tibetan monk so one is not sure if he is legitimate or not. Things don’t sound right; stories don’t add up, people don’t get their money’s worth. The frustration levels of the group are tantamount to rebellion with Teacher because he has all the appurtenances of home while they have the miserable indignities of sleeping on the floor. He slips them a sympathy card they all buy and an easier life slowly moves on.

It’s a funny thing about the written note of intention in this play; words don’t have to be verbal to cause moral discontent and moral discontent is extremely painful to the receiver when it is projected without words.   

Laura Jellinek, Scenic Designer, provides a workable set for the space.  The set moves in and out, a breathable object that brings life to action and right into our laps.

Tilly Grimes, Costume Designer, gives us a grand sense of reality with modern day characters dressed in a fashion of belonging in that camp, and playing a role.

Mike Inwood, Lighting Design, perplexed me a bit, especially during the night scene where we move from one situation to the next by projecting the light on the action. Everyone is in the room and using the space. All have small lanterns.  Movement of the action on stage would have focused our attention.  So, why the light?

Sound Design, by Stowe Nelson, placed us there right in the action and gave us a sense of time and place.  One wasn’t too sure about the bear mixed with the sex noises and how that all worked in the context of the play.

Other members of the crew are as follows:

Andrew Schneider – Video Design
Noah Mease – Prop Design
Henry Russell Bergstein, CSA
Lauren Z. Adleman – Associate Director
J. Michael Stafford – Production Supervisor
James Steele – Production Stage Manager
Maximum Entertainment – General Management
Eva Price – Producer

Run! Run!  And take a misfit. This will be the place where you will both fit in. 

Through January 28, 2018

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