I can’t remember another time when a production’s set stopped me in my tracks.
Entering the venue for Small Mouth Sounds was delightfully surprising: the air was so noticeably fresh that I disregarded finding my seat, standing instead by the stage, attempting to appease my now stimulated senses. Where had I just walked into? As I observed, a calmness washed over me. It felt necessary to take my time.
The set ran from wall to wall, cutting the Segal Center’s Studio in two. Green light shone gently over worn wood panels, the stage area sheltered under a scarce set of trees. Audience members faced each other from across the stage as they waited for the play to begin. Faint bird chirping underscored a talkative crowd, positioning the audience in a liminal space between a man-made theatrical set and the great outdoors.
As the stage went dark, the sound of rain drops resonated over gentle bass and percussion. Light shimmered in stripes of gold, and I felt like I’d just woken up in a forest clearing. One by one, the actors made their way onto stage, settling side by side into a single row of chairs.
Written by Bess Wohl and directed by Caitlin Murphy, Small Mouth Sounds follows the stories of six individuals as they journey off to a silent retreat, and explores the possibility of communication and connection in an environment where verbal language is cast aside.
Though our six main characters Jan, Joan, Ned, Rodney, Alicia, and Judy (Andreas Apergis, Alison Darcy, Matthew Gagnon, Gabe Grey, Zara Jestadt, Warona Setshwaelo) remain silent for most of the piece, a voice that sounds over the speaker system (Marcelo Arroyo) unites them: set up as an omniscient figure, the voice leads the characters with advice, anecdotes, and even testimonies.
Though the idea of having a ‘God Voice’ directing the characters for me generally feels overdone, Small Mouth Sounds challenged the cliché by making the voice openly unsure of itself at times and ably demonstrating its human flaws. Moreover, listening to this voice while observing characters who lack their own, created an interesting dynamic that granted the audience an untraditional vantage point. We learn about characters by means of observing their reactions, leaving the audience to discern six different perspectives as each moment unfolds on stage. In this way, Small Mouth Sounds draws our attention to the plethora of information we’re subjected to every single instant. The play is a remark on how crowded our lives can be, and how difficult it can be to detach from it. Although interesting as a concept, its manifestation did at times lead to a visually cluttered stage.
Quieter moments with fewer actors granted the audience the much needed space to take it all in. Small Mouth Sounds comprised a particularly talented cast, and Setshwaelo’s performance stood out among them. Acting in this play relies heavily on the ability to translate traditionally cognitive elements corporeally. Setshwaelo’s character, Judy, has come to the retreat with her partner Joan (Darcy), to find some peace amidst her battle with cancer. When an argument between them leaves Judy dispirited, she mourns her situation with somatic hums that echo the torment of her mind. It is only amidst the emptiness of the stage that she is able to release her pain, and as her suffering reverberates through the theatre, waves of emotion strike the audience.
Though Small Mouth Sounds was apt at developing its characters and their relationships, I felt it lacked in developing a clear thesis. The play flirted with didacticism, but didn’t fully flesh out any particular message. In 2020, remarking that we are cornered by our technologies and that we are at a loss for human interaction seems overt. Asking the audience to sit with their silences, is, of course, a relevant and freeing reminder, however this concept failed to bring anything new to the table.
Despite my hopes for a more innovative approach or twist to refuel these ideas, Small Mouth Sounds was nonetheless a compassionate reminder to take real notice of what and who is around us.
A well-executed and entertaining play, Small Mouth Sounds is a soothing break away from a busy world and even busier mind.
Performances: February 9th – March 1st, 2020
Venue: The Segal Centre Studio (5170, Ch. de la Côte-Ste-Catherine)
Tickets: 514.739.7944 | www.segalcentre.org