It’s been almost a decade since I attended a show at Augustana College. Since I was there last, Augie has built the gorgeous Brunner Theatre Center, where a dear friend and I were fortunate enough to attend Tuesday night’s dress rehearsal of playwright Bess Wohl’s Small Mouth Sounds.
I say “fortunate” because this production is a truly unique experience. Its story follows six people who have come to a retreat; we don’t learn all of the particulars, but each of these characters is suffering. The retreat's leader, known only as Teacher (Rose Klinger), asks all of the participants to adhere to a simple rule: silence. While they are there, they are not permitted to make any sounds. And for most of the show's 90-minute run time, they don't.
Before the performance starts, a couple of actors have already taken their places on stage. Jan (Ella Miller) wanders in and struggles to choose which seat to sit in, while Rodney (Titus Jilderda) enters and takes up as much space as possible. I love this style of theatre, because it rewards audience engagement – the more you lean forward and invest in the world you’re seeing, the more you’ll get from the experience. And much of the action in director Ben Gougeon's presentation is staged in this way. After the first session, the retreat's members make their way to their cabins and we see them get ready for bed. Ten minutes pass with only a handful of words spoken, and were this any other show, it’d be an excruciating wait. But here, it’s captivating, and a wonderful inversion. Rather than having the action or plot come to you, you need to make your own inferences. In many ways, it feels like self-guided meditation.
Of course, a self-guided experience can also be prone to error. If I’m watching one pair of characters over here, I can miss an important beat between two characters over there. As an audience member, it’s freeing, but also frustrating, and near the end of Tuesday's rehearsal, there was a moment that was the definition of “blink and you miss it.” There were also occasional pacing issues, with some moments dragging on entirely too long (how many times do I really need to see a character silently cry?) and some moments feeling far too rushed. On Tuesday, Ned (Soryn Richter) had a bit where he wanted to join the other retreaters for some skinny-dipping in the lake. But he spent more time to struggling to get out of his clothes than he did trying to decide whether or not to join them, which felt like a missed opportunity for some capital-A Acting.
That being said, all of the actors did a fine job with what would be a challenging script for even seasoned performers. Their portrayals were all internal, with body language and sighs (those “small mouth sounds”) being their primary form of communication, and Marlee Oros was a standout as the abrasive and loud Alicia.
On the technical side, everything was uniformly excellent. The costume design by Becki Arnold and Katie Sanders adds to the naturalism of this world, with each character having a distinct look and feel (as well as literal baggage they bring with them). Mike Turczynski's light/sound/set design creates a believable world for these characters to inhabit, employing smart use of the Brunner space. And Gougeon's direction makes the action easy to follow, even if a few “long” moments crept into “too-long” territory.
Of course, no production is without its faults, and this one featured a personal pet peeve: mimed props. In this case, mimed doors, which was extra-odd considering the rest of the props and action were all literal. What’s the difference between a mimed door being shut gently and slammed angrily? (Hint: Nothing.) But my biggest issue with Small Mouth Sounds came down to a matter of taste.
The vast majority of dialogue is spoken by Teacher, with all of her lines performed via microphone, and we never directly see her. Gougeon's production, meanwhile, turns all of her sermons into shadow plays. She is backlit with her shadow looming large over her students – which, I will admit, is a really cool effect – and her non-sermon scenes occur in the same way, with her shadow appearing from behind and the students staring out over the audience. Logistically, this works. The lights are gorgeous, the levels on the mic are perfect, and even the sight-lines of the actors are all synced up (no small feat). And yet ... it didn’t resonate for me. With the play being so centered on sound and silence, it felt odd to make Klinger's performance a visaul spectacle instead of an aural one, delivered through gestures instead of voice. I don’t fault Klinger at all for this, as she did a fantastic job of making Teacher both inviting and off-putting, nor do I even fault the production team as, again, it all technically works. The choice just wasn’t for me.
Small Mouth Sounds features long periods of silence and you very well may leave with more questions than you had at the start. But there’s joy to be found if you only look and listen, and Augustana's latest is, I guarantee, unlike anything you’ve seen before.
Small Mouth Sounds runs at Augustana College's Brunner Theatre Center (3750 Seventh Avenue, Rock Island IL) through March 19, and more information and tickets are available by calling (309)794-7306 and visiting Augustana.edu/tickets.