Venue: Eternity Playhouse (Darlinghurst NSW), May 3 – 26, 2019
Playwright: Bess Wohl
Director: Jo Turner
Cast: Amber McMahon, Sharon Millerchip, Yalin Ozucelik, Jane Phegan, Justin Smith, Dorje Swallow, Jo Turner
Images by Robert Catto
The story takes place at one of those spiritual retreats, where people spend days not talking, trying to access a state of deep meditation. Six characters in Bess Wohl’s Small Mouth Sounds gather at one such facility, each with their own set of problems, seeking prodigious revelations that could mean an instant moment of salvation, to release them from considerable pain. These personal tragedies, with all their human vulnerability and desperation, form the basis of Wohl’s comedy. Cynical but also honest, the play is distinctive for its scant dialogue, relying instead on actors’ physical capacities to chart a journey, through their amusing presentation of sequences that alternate between absurd and meaningful.
The show is often funny, always intriguing with its creative renderings of a unique theatrical concept. A clever cast works exhaustively for our entertainment, offering up personalities that are endearing, familiar and believable. While a cohesive team, each performer delivers their own memorable nuances, for a result that is surprisingly textured. Slightly less effective is Jo Turner’s voice playing the part of the unseen Guru, perhaps a tinge too obvious with his humour. As director, Turner’s enthusiasm is more well placed. There is an effervescence to the production that appeals, even if it does take some time to turn persuasive. Early sections have a tendency to feel forced, but our engagement improves incrementally over time, and when it wins us over, Small Mouth Sounds proves an enjoyable ride.
Jeremy Allen’s set and Jasmine Rizk’s lights make for a visually vibrant staging, but it is Tegan Nicholls’ work as sound designer and composer that truly impresses. In the absence of the usual voices that occupy our auditory attention, Nicholls fills ninety minutes with an intricate mix of sounds from nature, as well as an assortment of music and effects, to help manufacture a rich and magical experience of theatre. Our imagination is guided by her detailed ear, for subconscious manipulations that take us through a gamut of emotional responses.
The seekers in Small Mouth Sounds have big issues to wrestle with, but there is little poignancy to be found in their respective narratives. No great transformations occur as a result of their fleeting commitment in the countryside. It is a realistic conclusion to the tale, one that can feel somewhat empty, although its insistent refusal of a happy ending in the form of outlandish miracles, is admirable. There is great value in keeping silent and looking inward, but to expect enlightenment in an instant, is naive. When we hope to heal, we think about returning to an idealistic state of being, before the infliction of damage. It may be however, that all we can ask for, is to be able to move forward, with the minimum of encumbrance, even whilst bearing a soul full of scars.