BWW Review: SMALL MOUTH SOUNDS Speaks Volumes
It's no secret that Atlanta traffic sucks, and finding parking in that lawless metropolis is almost as bad. By the time I managed to wrestle my way through both, I had about two minutes to run - in heels - from the parking deck to the Woodruff Arts Center across the street, ask for directions to the Hertz Stage, and race down two flights of stairs to the intimate stage that was home to SMALL MOUTH SOUNDS. I barely made it, and was still catching my breath when the pre-show announcement came over the speakers. However, instead of the usual "no phones, no photography, here are the exits" spiel, it was unique to the show, in keeping with the recent trend. Since the show takes place at a silent wellness retreat, the voiceover starts with calming sentences and guides the audience in a breathing technique designed to calm the body. It was exactly what I needed. Within a minute, my mind and body were at rest and I and the rest of the audience were in the best possible position to view the show.
At the start of the show, we're introduced to the six campers, each with their own struggles and reasons for attending, which the audience is slowly shown throughout the play as they learn and grow through the experience. The dynamics between characters are palpable, raw, and varied, and each person in the show is adequately fleshed-out. Due to the nearly nonverbal nature of the play, we're not formally introduced to any of the characters and don't know any of their names until the end (and even then we only hear two of them). There is little plot besides an all-encompassing "finding yourself" theme, but less is more in this case.
Each actor is well-suited to their characters. Owais Ahmed - Rodney, the yoga instructor - is a self-described "practicing Yogi" and portrays the standoffish character well, right down to the reveal at the end. Jeremy Aggers gives a stunningly emotional performance as Jan, the character with the fewest amount of lines yet easily manages to stand out above the others. Alexandra Ficken (Alicia) is engaging and honest, while Andrew Benator (Ned) is endearing and hysterical, especially in his monologue that plays like a stand-up routine. January LaVoy, the unseen teacher at the retreat, emotes just as well with only her voice as the other actors do with their words and bodies. The final two - Courtney Patterson and Ericka Ratcliff, who play partners Joan and Judy, respectively - display their characters' struggles with grace and poise. All that said, the script is even better. Written by Bess Wohl, this show perfectly balances hand motions and mutters and groans and grunts (small mouth sounds, if you will) with the occasional rule-breaking word.
There's something to be said for the stage in and of itself as well. The Hertz Stage isn't on risers like normal stages, and you literally have to walk on the outskirts of it to get to your seats, above and looking down on the stage. This makes the play feel almost immersive, with the actors standing at the "edge" of the undefined stage space at times, only inches away from audience members' faces. There is no intermission and the show plays at around an hour and a half, with the only scene changes being dimming and brightening of the lights, accompanied occasionally by fireflies or rain on the background. Designed by Leslie M. Taylor, the set for this particular play is simplistic without edging into quaint, leaving the extra space for the actors to stand out well.
This is probably a good thing, seeing as most of the actors are onstage and living out their own individual storylines at the same time. If the script contained dialogue, all of the actors would be talking over one another during most of the show. As a whole, the storylines were easy to follow, a testament to the stellar direction of Susan V. Booth. However, there were a few things that I missed when I found myself watching the same two characters interact too long. I can see this as a potential problem for older viewers or audience members who aren't as familiar with the more unique forms of theatre.
SMALL MOUTH SOUNDS is Art with a capital A and is probably suited best for an theatre-goers who are open to a more experimental theatre experience. It can be viewed as purely entertainment, or audience members can ask of themselves the same questions that the characters are asking and, as the unseen teacher emphatically charges, "CHAAAAANGE."
SMALL MOUTH SOUNDS plays at The Alliance Theatre now through October 27th, and is recommended for ages 16 and up. Tickets are available on their website, with group discounts available. Talkbacks with staff members of the Alliance will also be held after certain perfomances. See their website for more info!