“Wake Up” or “Look Up”? “Small Mouth Sounds” Asking “Big Picture” Questions

It’s not surprising to find that sound is a hugely important part of Bess Wohl’s Small Mouth Sounds, currently playing at the Signature Theatre in an Arts Nova production directed by Rachel Chavkin. What’s more surprising is how important space is here, and how the staging joins sound and space to create an experience—shared by performers and spectators—that uses the theatre to look—and think—beyond the theatre. As such, the play remembers theatre’s etymological origins (greek theatron = the seeing place) to remind us that it is not language alone that carries meaning, but bodies as well, and suggests that this bodied meaning is perhaps more deeply connected to the space we inhabit—the earth—that any of our languages can ever be.

The loudest sounds heard in Small Mouth Sounds are the sounds of torrential rain on tin roofs, and the sounds of a thunderstorm. The loudest sounds made by humans in the play are made when they pretend to be bears, to frighten off an actual bear (though one unseen by the play’s audience). When it comes to volume, then, the non-human definitely dominates.

The play’s soundscape consists of the sounds of nature in many moods, plus several short, cliché-ridden disquisitions by a teacher (also unseen, like the bear), and one long and extraordinary monologue by one of the characters. Other than these aural elements, the play offers a full range of the “small mouth sounds” that the plays title refers to: whimpers, giggles, moans, groans, sobs, sighs, sniffles, exclamations, ejaculations, food crunching, water gulping, lip smacking.

As for space: a few interspersed scenes of formal disquisition have all the characters sitting on closely lined-up chairs on a platform at one end of the playing area, listening to the unseen teacher’s often ludicrous pearls of wisdom. One peroration is interrupted by a sneeze that may be as loud as the bear sounds mentioned earlier, and leads the wise one to discuss his health and medications, to the obvious puzzlement of his hapless students.

This unusual ratio of verbal to non-verbal theatrical inputs enjoins an unusual kind of attention on the play’s spectators, giving them long stretches of time to simply attend to the physical lives and movements of the characters. Most of these occur in the long central playing area, flanked by rows of spectator seats. In this playing area, we watch the characters prepare for sleep every night and awake every morning, conducting the full panoply of sensible, strange, fussy, ridiculous, and necessary accommodations whereby our skittish species makes itself feel reasonably safe in a world we’re never able to quite trust or fully understand.

This group of people involves one couple and four singles, making for additional layers of irritation, alienation, need, hope, and kindness. It also makes for a gallery of physical types: humans of several genders, skin colors, body types, and super-human abilities (the yoga guy). There’s a simple (and all-too-rare) pleasure in observing fellow humans who live, like most of us, in sub-fashion-model bodies. That pleasure is augmented here by our sympathetic laughter at their befuddlement by the rules of a smug establishment that’s counting on the decency and self-restraint of these sincere seekers: they’re in the kind of situation we’re familiar with, wanting things to be better than they usually turn out to be. The front desk switches you to voice mail. You curl up, pull the small blanket over your head, and try to sleep. The mosquitos feast on you all night.

The play’s quietness is partly dictated by its fictional setting: a New Age spiritual spa where voluntary silence is the mode of self-discovery that our group of characters has signed up for. The silence is supposed, of course, to help you tune into your inner voice, to access your innate wisdom. In the theatrical context, the characters’ silence tunes you into their physical lives: their bodies, their movements, their small mouth sounds. All these things rapidly forge a strong web of connection between characters and spectators; we feel linked to them by their problems and their instantly identifiable kinds of emotional pain—from romantic breakups, cancer diagnoses, loss of a loved one, marital alienation. A second, equally easy connection arises from their familiar foibles: over-eating, forgetfulness, tardiness, inappropriate behavior.  We watch these fellow humans do their thing—which is also our thing—and we feel we know them.

The play works hard to create this sense of recognition, but not as a final goal or end point. Rather, the sense of familiarity and commonality we enjoy provides the steady ground from which the play’s second perspective unfolds. Having first made us feel at home, the play then invites us to look around—and beyond—ourselves.

While the characters are busy negotiating the rules of their temporary new home, the audience’s attention is regularly drawn away from their antics by the video screens that circle the long room, a band of evocative imagery and sound located well above the spectators’ eye level. With insistent regularity, the screens draw our gaze upwards. Time and again, we go from looking down at our hapless friends at ground level to looking up, where the non-human world shimmers and pulses and drips with life. The video imagery features stunning landscapes, thrilling sunsets, and close-ups of rainfall in the woods. One astonishing video passage shows a mosquito in close-up, moving slowly across the screen. The image recalls a strange and touching scene in which one character shows another all the mosquito bits on his body, yelping a small “yow” as he points each one out.

It was the conjuncture of filmed mosquito above with the mosquito-marked body below that began to pull me towards a synthesis of the play’s two perspectives—human and non-human, or, better: all-too-human and more-than-human. The synthesis was brought on by a repeated physical movement—looking up, looking down—which gradually began to feel like a theme or message in its own right. It reminded me, of course, of the idea of “fifth wall dramaturgy” that I’ve related to climate change theatre, but it also suggested how that dramaturgy subtly reconfigures the human on stage, nudging characters away from biography, and towards biology. Aided by the plot and setting, which turned down the volume on our usually garrulous species, the play explored what might be called the “creaturely” life of the humans on stage, the life lived in and through our physiological systems’ interactions with the biological, geo-physical, and ecological systems of the earth.

The “species life” that is one constant yet frequently ignored dimension of human existence will surely play a key role in any attempt that contemporary artists make to explore life in the age of climate change. What will make this interesting is what we’ll discover when this species life ceases to be conceived as a separate or separable layer on some essential humanity, but is understood rather to be at the very core of our human natures. Treating species life as a given, Small Mouth Sounds takes us on a journey from amusing sociology to surprising discovery, revealing a prospect in which the characters’ familiar self-improvement ethos takes on an edge that might rightly be called “bio-political.”

It happens when the one character who has a full-length monologue starts talking. He’s supposed to be asking the teacher a question, but he’s having trouble framing it. “The earth . . .” he begins, and then stops. “I mean, like, the planet? Right?” The speech continues with a sputtering flow of incoherence, digression, distraction, confession, and anguished searching. Alongside a personal story of terrible loss, injustice and suffering, we see unfolding a dawning recognition of the terrible state of the earth: its extinctions, sea-level rise, melting ice caps. The non-human world that’s been hovering above us, just above eye-level, seems momentarily to borrow human language to speak of its own condition and urgent need. The speaker ends up folding that non-human surround into his—and our—immediate concerns: given all that’s happening out there, he asks, isn’t it natural for us to be disturbed? Wouldn’t it, in fact, be insane to be “at peace,” as the spiritual teachings seem to be urging us to be?

The “small mouth sounds” of the play’s title may refer, then, not only to the funny noises made by the voluntarily silenced characters, but also to the sounds of the non-human world, and also to the dialogue between these two realms, as voiced in the deeply divided and self-divided monologue. Together, these sounds bespeak an aggregate but dispersed subject—both human and non-human—registering the questions and consequences that affect all species today. The play doesn’t offer answers, of course—though it’s clearly sympathetic to the teacher’s frustrated roar at his students: “Change! For god’s sake, change!!”


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