The Ghostlight Theatre in Benton Harbor recently opened its summer season with the play “Small Mouth Sounds”. WMUK’s Gordon Bolar has this review.
Minutes before the beginning of playwright Bess Wohl’s “Small Mouth Sounds,” a disembodied voice over the speaker system, presumably theatre management, shares a tedious tongue-in-cheek list of “do’s and don’ts” for audience conduct during the show.
While the substance of these introductory instructions prepares us for the serenity of a meditative journey, the deep over-calming tone suggests that the pursuit of spiritual enlightenment, frequently mocked since the 1960’s, will be an easy target this evening. Say the word “Ohm” and you’ll likely get a laugh. Before the evening is done, however, both Wohl’s script and the performance that unfolds demonstrate that this target is not always so easy to hit.
As the play begins, six people converge on a quiet wooded setting outdoors for a five-day, silent, spiritual retreat. Each indicates a key to their character through a small gesture or a rhythm in their entrance. Each is seeking something, though not necessarily enlightenment.
Once settled, the six sit and listen attentively to yet another spacy disembodied voice over the sound system, that of their “Teacher”, with yet another long list of rules, including: no smoking, no cell phones, no drugs, no food in the tents, and most important, no talking.
This long and overwrought set up at least holds comic potential. When character foibles collide with the rules of the retreat, laughter must surely ensue. And given the diverse personalities involved, this set up also promises funny or perhaps revelatory insights into the nature of those assembled, and their willingness to embrace or resist life-altering change.
Unfortunately, these early promises were largely unfulfilled. The show and script seemed to lack both laughter for the audience and moments of revelation for the characters.
Part of the reason is the imposed silence on those attending the retreat. The outdoor staging of director Les Rorick’s production, in the parking lot behind the theatre, had difficulty maintaining and controlling the silence of the retreat setting, because of passing motorcycles or aircraft overhead.
Some humor, or at least relief of tension, could have been generated through breaking the silence with a phone call or short phrase shared between actors. However, in order to break the silence, the production must first establish a silence that is palpable and somewhat oppressive. This crucial requirement of Wohl’s script was seldom realized.
Another missed opportunity for humor concerns the breaking of rules established by the Teacher. Wohl’s script provides little or no penalty for characters who steal off to their tent to sneak a cookie or smoke a bowl or two between sessions. Consequently, there’s no tension or motivation driving the characters’ secretive behavior during these otherwise clandestine activities.
Ghostlight’s outdoor stage also had difficulty in generating believably motivated sounds of nature and offstage activities around the camp through its speaker system. An unexplained, ocean-like, roaring accompanied the initial entrance and brief dialogue of two of the characters, but this could have been due to the fact that the performers were mic’ed and masked.
A central challenge in presenting a play with little dialogue and a lot of scripted silent activity is telling the play’s story visually. In a non-verbal world, performers must execute physical actions with clear, crisp movements, to communicate with the audience and with one another.
A scene that did rise to this challenge was the wordless exchange between Joan, a cancer survivor, played by Kristi Peterson, and Jan, played by Paul Stortz. As Joan shares the despair of her situation, Jan shows her a picture of his child, apparently now deceased.
The careful placing of her hand on his shoulder provided at least one moment of human connection among a collection of characters seemingly at odds with one another. More carefully staged scenes of this caliber would have been a welcome addition to the production.
Another challenge for any show with little or no dialogue is directing the audience’s attention to the right place at the right moment. Matt Bizoe, a gifted physical actor, who portrayed the Zen-wannabe Rodney, had little problem doing this with his loud “Ohms” or his yoga-like posturing.
In some scenes, however, as characters reclined on mats on the low stage platform, they had difficulty making movements significant or the handling of objects visible.
It’s understandable that during the COVID epidemic and favorable weather, theatres choose to present productions outdoors. Given the special non-verbal challenges of “Small Mouth Sounds”, however, and the limitations of Ghostlight’s outdoor stage, this play might not have been the best choice for this space.
The Ghostlight Theatre is a new and welcome addition to the Southwest Michigan stage scene. Hopefully, future efforts will better match the script with the venue for a richer audience experience.