The idea behind Bess Wohl's "Small Mouth Sounds" is pretty ingenious: it's a play about six people at a week long silent retreat.
As the play opens we see six folding chairs facing the audience. We're in what looks like a yoga studio or simple conference center in the woods. One by one our characters make their way on stage to begin their retreat: there's the bearded guy wearing Patagonia; there's the guy in glasses with a hoodie and a skull cap who looks a little anxious; there's the Asian dude with the prayer beads - this clearly isn't his first rodeo; there's the two older ladies in loose but vaguely professional garb like maybe they run a non-profit somewhere; then scurrying in late, is the disheveled blond with the skinny jeans and voluminous jacket and purse.
Already your starting to put together a story. Who are these people? What's their deal?
It's the same muscle you exercise waiting to catch a plane. Looking around and imagining the lives that are hinted at by small details, silent mannerisms, chance interactions.
The dramatic tension, such as it is, is created by the silence - or would be created by the silence if it lasted. Let's just say this, for a play about a silent retreat there is a lot of talking.
Adding to our six seen characters, is a seventh unseen yet almost ever-present voice:Our guru who is heard saying guru-y things over the speakers. He's leading our tribe through their meditation and dropping the koans and clues to a desired enlightenment. All the familiar tropes are there: the japanese flute music, the either profound or inscrutable animal parables, the odd sense of humor. If you've ever been to even an afternoon workshop you'll chuckle. Ms. Wohl clearly knows the drill.
The real challenge with "Small Mouth Sounds" is it’s a piece between two worlds.
If you're a person who's used to typical regional theater fare - you might find it a little frustrating that there's not more dialogue.
If you're the kind of person who might go see a butoh show or actually attend a week-long silent retreat, you're going to find the piece terribly impatient.
The play operates on the assumption that we're all damaged if we listen closely - even the guy lighting our path has issues.
I can imagine a deeply moving silent piece about these six people grappling with that. And while that's the premise, Ms. Wohl breaks her own rules. It isn't long before one of our characters is suddenly revealing his whole backstory in a lengthy monologue. I imagine in that moment that half the audience is deeply relieved and the other half is deeply frustrated.
The trick, it you're thinking of seeing "Small Mouth Sounds" is to bring a little meditative patience and just be present with it regardless of your tribe.
"Small Mouth Sounds" plays at the Broad Stage in Santa Monica through this Sunday January 28th.
For info on the show and to subscribe to the weekly KCRW theater newsletter, check out: kcrw.com/theater.