October 24, 2022

Tune In to the Sounds of Silence with SSU’S SMALL MOUTH SOUNDS

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By Easton Mills

Salem State University’s production of SMALL MOUTH SOUNDS will play again this weekend from October 27-30. Get Tickets Here. 

It was at the Maverick Concert Hall in New York City in 1952 when pianist David Tudor set a timer, sat down to a piano, and didn’t play a note for four minutes and 33 seconds. The ambient sounds of the hall filled in the spaces he left open. Crickets chirped, birds rustled, humans coughed. The sounds of silence weren’t silent at all. 

Bess Wohl’s SMALL MOUTH SOUNDS opened to massive critical acclaim in 2016 and was considered a triumph by The New York Times and Vanity Fair among many others. Like John Cage and David Tudor’s 4’33’’, it plays up the incidental sounds of human experience, making art of the things often swallowed by speech and conversation. 

SMALL MOUTH SOUNDS follows six runaways from city life who have embarked on a silent retreat. During this experience, the strangers awkwardly and mostly silently confront their internal demons. Some have more success than others. These six characters and their “teacher” are true archetypes that we both despise and relate to. There is the hot one who meditates and is the first to pick up on social cues, a queer couple whose work and home life spills over into everything, the oddly eccentric outdoorsy type, the way too quiet one, and the complete mess who is always late to everything. 

On stage they roll out sleeping bags, meditate, floss their teeth, have picnics and go swimming, argue and complain, and try to connect while maintaining as much silence as possible. It’s an intimate and humanizing experience which, when done well, is hilarious and wholesome and plainly earnest. 

Salem State’s Production of SMALL MOUTH SOUNDS turned a tidy 90 minute performance into something nearing the two hour mark and needing an intermission. The pacing was slow and often too deliberate. Scenes of dressing and undressing, packing and unpacking, could’ve been truncated after their initial presentation. 

At one point “Teacher” began his lesson during an unpacking scene as opposed to waiting for everyone to fully set up the stage. Whether this was a mistake or intentional, this reviewer hoped that it would continue throughout. It did not. 

Some of the action also took place a bit too close to the audience – many of whom chose to sit close to capture the nuance (myself included), only to have monologues and romantic moments directed so far over our heads as to be inaccessible. Most notably during Ned’s “question” soliloquy expertly delivered by senior Trevor Hathaway. I had to crane my neck tennis match style all the way to the right for the duration of the speech. 

Apart from these technical asides, the players each did a remarkable job performing their roles. To be a player mostly silent is a challenge many actors are not up to. It’s so easy to hide behind words and let physicality fall to the wayside. But every time Joan (played by Michelle Moran) loudly nibbled on a caramel or Jan (Ryan McCarthy) waved like a clown with a secret, the audience could follow them there. One of the most effective moments is when Rodney (Michael Shifty Celestin) confronts a bear after the small group had gone swimming. In this scene, a word has to be used but the way that it is used alongside the physical expressions nearly had me falling out of my chair with laughter. 

Kudos also to costumes and light tech who did their jobs believably and therefore excellently.

Ultimately, SSU’S SMALL MOUTH SOUNDS will reward the patient listeners, especially the ones who are so tired of Salem’s crowds this month and are in need a silent retreat of their own. 

Directed by Alex Jacobs

Joan: Michelle Moran
Judy: Anya Saben
Ned: Trevor Hathaway
Rodney: Michael Shifty Celestin
Alicia: Skylar Longley
Jan: Ryan McCarthy
Teacher: Djessy Kungu

Salem State University’s production of SMALL MOUTH SOUNDS will play again this weekend from October 27-30. Get Tickets Here. 

Easton Mills is a contemporary theatre critic fascinated by language, rhetoric, and weird puns nobody else notices. He is a dog dad to Marshall and an aspiring birder. Follow him on Twitter @EastonMWrites

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