At Reno Little Theater’s new production, viewers are greeted with a meditation exercise.
You don’t have to do it, of course — no one is searching the audience to see if you close your eyes. But between the yoga-class-ready music, almost psychedelic lighting design and eerily on-the-mark set, it’s easy to feel sucked into the world of the new production, “Small Mouth Sounds,” and all it entails.
The world of “Small Mouth Sounds” is a new-agey wilderness retreat with strange platitudes, flexible rules on clothing and a mandatory five-day vow of silence included. Bears roam the woods and “wellness” is the order of the day. The presence of a cryptic, unseen Teacher makes the play’s opening scene a good candidate for the start of a horror movie. But then, “Small Mouth Sounds” takes a delightful turn: it becomes a comedy.
Yes, it’s about how Americans pick up things like yoga and meditation to become their most “mindful” selves in an attempt to dodge pain. It’s also about how ridiculous we can look while doing so.
Playwright Bess Wohl couches much of the associated darkness in sparse yet incredibly powerful laughter, but the play overall is just fantastic at getting rises of all kinds out of its audience. You won’t just laugh. You’ll groan. You’ll clap a hand over your mouth. You’ll suck air in through your teeth.
The intimate, six-person cast, directed by University of Nevada, Reno theater instructor Adi Cabral, is a big part of this. The script isn’t entirely free of dialogue, but Wohl is careful about where she uses it, and the characters, thanks to the silence rule, have to be, too. With maybe theater’s most essential tool often out of reach, it’s down to facial expressions, subtext and physicality to make a performance. The players of “Small Mouth Sounds” are more than up for the challenge.
We meet neurotic, beanie-wearing Ned, played with deep human understanding by Scott Hernandez. Sophie Moeller and La Ronda Etheridge, as the free-spirit-meets-workaholic couple Joan and Judy, bring an excellent grasp of human foibles to the play’s depiction of love.
The play’s other characters, we don’t get to know quite as fully, but they’re still in highly capable hands. Patrick Mink as Jan, for instance, gets few enough lines to count them all on one hand. Each is brilliantly timed and absolutely devastating.
Even the omnipotent Teacher, who never appears on stage and is heard overhead like a narrator, gets an impressive showing. The role will be traded off between Stephanie Cook, Bradford Ka’ai’ai and Abraham Vasquez throughout the run of “Small Mouth Sounds,” but it’s sure to be a great part for all three. There’s something bracing and cathartic in the way the production slowly unfolds the Teacher and how little they actually know what they’re doing. It’s both hysterical and horribly true: everyone to whom we might look for guidance is just as lost and unprepared as the rest of us.
A flexible, detailed set designed by Chad Sweet and Jess Brown’s wonderfully immersive lighting design anchor the expert production. Adi Cabral’s direction makes a pitch-perfect piece of theater out of a very messy reality. Their work might be one of the best things you can see in Reno this year.
“Small Mouth Sounds” will extend its run at Brewery Arts Center in Carson City this weekend, May 5-7.
Peregrine Hart can be reached via email at email@example.com or on Twitter @pintofperegrine.