In Plato’s allegory of the cave, he asks us to imagine people who are chained to the back of a cave, only ever able to see the shadows of things in the real world. He asks us to concede that even amongst such backward people they would create a hierarchy between themselves – awarding honorifics to those best able to recognize and interpret these shadows. If, Plato contends, one of these prisoners was ever to be set free in the bright light of the outside world, and if he managed to make his way back down to communicate his observations to the others, surely they would kill him. Plato’s tale illuminates some of the central questions of Philosophical inquiry, namely Ontology (what is real?) and Epistemology (how do we know?). Small Mouth Sounds starts with a similar story – a Frog who has spent his whole life in a Well finally confronts the overwhelmingly large Ocean... and immediately drops dead. The Frog’s small frame of reference, like the people in the cave, can’t expand to the magnitude of the Ocean. Unlike the Heroic Prisoner who tries to convey Truth to the trapped others, the Frog’s story is smaller, more personal. It is about confronting one’s smallness, one’s inability to know. Far from being heroic, the quest for self-healing and self-knowledge is at the heart of Small Mouth Sounds, and the audience’s experiential connections (like Plato’s cave to me) help drive its central preoccupation: namely, we are small, we are broken, and that is ok. Perhaps we are enough.
There is very, very little spoken dialogue during this play, so most of the labor falls on the actors as they mime, mouth, and moan their interactions. While some characters are more sharply drawn (character Ned gets a full monologue, which gives Michael Curran-Dorsano room to flex) others are sketches. Like witnesses asked to recreate the face of a suspect, the audience must fill in the gaps with half-truths, assumptions, and analogous persons. The characters become not someone you know, but archetypes for people you have known – the hyper connected yet distracted Millennial, the enlightened yoga practitioner, the lovers on retreat, the man having a mid-life crisis, and the nice guy... Part of the fun of this play is imagining who everyone was outside of this quiet space, and what calamity or force convinced them to find solace here. Jim Lichtscheidl (Jan), Becca Hart (Alicia), and Eric Sharp (Rodney) do a lovely job keeping the audience's attention and convening meaningful pieces of their backstories without much aid. For me, the standout performances of the evening were Christina Baldwin (Joan) and Faye M. Price (Judy), who as a couple are trying to come to terms with Judy’s illness. Their meaningful looks, tender touches, and moments of frivolity and wrath perfectly capture the physical intimacy of a long-term relationship.
The Teacher, voiced by Jay Owen Eisenberg, takes his role as the only consistently talking character seriously and makes himself hypnotizingly memetic. The Teacher constantly reinforces that they are broken, like all things. What makes this play excellent, though, is the way that the Teacher’s guidance doesn’t quite match up with his own life. This jarring mismatch prevents Small Mouth Sounds from succumbing to the temptation of pure saccharine falseness. Playwright Bess Wohl’s work, interpreted in Jungle’s production by director Lauren Keating, manages to maintain a levity, a playfulness, a whimsical irony that doesn’t reach for proselytizing wonder nor does it stoop to trivializing the profound.
Mina Kinukawa’s minimal set uses the Jungle’s rotating platform well and creates enough space to imagine the vastness of the camp. Combined with Karin Olson’s lighting design and Reid Rejsa’s sound design, we are transported to a slowly yet ever changing outside space--the camp comes alive, reminding us that our lives used to be ruled by the sun. Even the sound of the rotating stage manages to feel like crickets or the rustling of tall grass. When taken together, these elements create a highly charged atmospheric experience.
Small Mouth Sounds requires a bit more vigilance -- the characters want to reveal themselves to the audience, but you must be paying attention. Remember, not all that glitters is gold, not all that wander are lost, and sometimes boats sail out into the ocean to sink. Oh well. Or should we say, oh Well -- we still want to see the Ocean?
Small Mouth Sounds plays until June 16 at the Jungle Theater.
Edit: Jay Owen Eisenberg was incorrectly gendered as female in the original publishing. We are EXTREMELY sorry for this blatant error and failure on our part.