In Bess Wohl’s “Small Mouth Sounds,” six people arrive to a silent retreat with differing degrees of energy and in various states of agitation:

  • A middle-aged, hard-to-read guy begs for the description “mild-mannered.”
  • A yoga master with perfect posture stretches into this shared space with own-the-room ease.
  • A clumsy-sweet dude fumbles about earnestly, wanting to ask questions, knowing that talking is a no-no.
  • Two women walk in gesturing with the utter familiarity and mild fits of frustration that move them from the good friends to the couples column.
  • A young woman breezes in. Late. Noisily. Even her attempts at quiet disrupt the space. Did I mention she has baggage? Too much of it for what is clearly a short stay.But, of course, they all have baggage.

With the six gathered, the stage – Arvada Center’s main stage, to be precise – appears set for the kind of revelations that plays reliant on “types” serve up. There is also the Teacher, represented by a disembodied voice with an accent of unknown origin but troubling choice.

The playwright was inspired to write this by turns clever, tender, glib one-act after attending a spiritual retreat in upstate New York. The title winks at the teeny noises most likely to aggravate during a retreat ruled by silence: the mouth breathing, the crunching of contraband snacks, the stifled giggle.

While director Lynn Collins gets amusing work from her cast when they engage notions about silence, the production doesn’t exploit stillness, which is another potent component of a retreat (and theater). Although the show doesn’t plumb the material’s nuanced depths enough, it hints at them. They are the stuff of seekers: grief and estrangement, infidelity and amity, awkwardness and presence.

If you go

“Small Mouth Sounds.” Written by Bess Wohl. Directed by Lynn Collins. Featuring Jessica Austgen, Annie Barbour, Kate Gleason, Geoffrey Kent, Jake Mendes, Kevin Rich and Josh Robinson. At the Arvada Center through May 30. 6901 Wadsworth Blvd., Arvada. Tickets available at arvadacenter.org or by calling the box office, 720-898-7200.

The actor’s trade is one of presence, and the entire cast is physically game to the work. A few go deeper. Geoffrey Kent brings a hapless hurt to Ned, who survived a traumatic brain injury but not as easily a familial knife to the back. Kent, deft at locating the comedic ache in almost every role he takes, does so here. Not unlike Rodney, his yoga-celebrity character, actor Jake Mendes has a lithe grasp of the ways that sinew and tendon, posture and poise can also be emotional armor. Kate Gleason conveys much about Judy, who at first seems to have come along for her partner, Joan (Jessica Austgen), but has her own hard discoveries to make.

As deft as some theater companies have been in plying the possibilities of Zoom, theater is — to its credit and wonder — a bodies-in-a-room proposition. Under pre-pandemic circumstances, “Small Mouth Sounds” might have arrived as a pleasant surprise (for some, it still will be). On its surface, it’s a near-perfect choice for this moment when bodies are —  like the retreat attendees —  gathering.

In order to observe safety protocols — common-sense ones and Actors’ Equity-wrangled ones – the Arvada Center moved what would have been a black box production onto its main stage — more room for the audience to spread out. The set is aptly evocative. Scenic designer Brian Mallgrave created a huge mandala-style pattern on the floor. Curtains stand in for forests and fallen leaves ring the stage.

Well regarded during its off-Broadway premiere in 2015, “Small Mouth Sounds” may yet again have its moment. (We are creatures of cycles, after all.) For now, however, we remain in a cycle of growth and discomfort.

The Arvada Center acknowledged as much last summer when it hosted “Amplify,” a series of video pieces by black theater-makers and performers on many subjects, but most germane, on the failures of theater to change up the works it mounts, to build a more inclusive workforce onstage and off — to do better.

“Better” here might have been casting the show with one more actor of color. (In her notes, the playwright left room for that choice.) Better most certainly would have been the director and actor Josh Robinson nailing an accent for the dodgy, off-stage Teacher that would be hard to pin down per the script but not too easily mistaken as an attempt at some sort of ethnic cadence.

Over the coming months, our beloved theaters will be inviting us to gather again. Perhaps I sound crabby, but I couldn’t be happier. Throw open the curtains with ridiculous bolts of pleasure. Pull back the curtain on untold stories intimate, hard, transformative. Just don’t spend too much time in the in-between.

As an opener — after a year of not gathering — “Small Mouth Sounds” feels too safe and mighty small for one of the region’s vital theaters. Is a sigh a small mouth sound?

Subscribe to our weekly newsletter, In The Know, to get entertainment news sent straight to your inbox.


Source: Read Full Article