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“Small Mouth Sounds” at The Broad—A Review

“…full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

One of Shakespeare’s greatest abilities is presenting his major characters in scenes wherein they enjoy some moment of thespian grandeur, mouth some verbal gem of the Bard’s crafting or reach a moment of insightful introspection that has the audience all a-gasp — and then Will follows that with some bit of stagecraft or even a single line that reveals the whole business is a sham, humbuggery, a “counterfeit presentment.”

Henry V is packed with them and, as a study of kingship and power, you’d expect it to be.

In Act IV, Scene III, prior to the battle of Agincourt where the greatly outnumbered English troops are facing a slaughter at the hands of the masses of heavily armored French knights, Henry rallies his troops with one of the greatest pieces of jingoist bunkum ever penned:

“We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;

For he to-day that sheds his blood with me

Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile —”

It’s rather frightful how many among even today’s modern audiences still fall for that one.

Then comes scene VIII, at the battle’s end when the French have been bloodily thrashed with some ten thousand of their most valiant knights lying dead on the field.

Henry turns and asks the English herald, “Where is the number of our English dead?” He’s then given the butcher bill accounting for the British losses which he reads aloud:

“Edward the Duke of York, the Earl of Suffolk,

Sir Richard Ketly, Davy Gam, Esquire;

None else of name —”

Audiences are usually so taken in by the lop-sided reckoning of the “miracle of Agincourt” causalities’ list they fail to notice that Henry’s off the cuff “none else of name“ remark puts the lie to his so very eloquent and so very hollow “we band of brothers” proclamation.

Sometimes Shakespeare will pull off the same trick with a bit of stage business like the entrance of a minor character.

In As You Like It you have the “Melancholy Jaques, moralist, philosopher and total douche.

In what has come to be known as “The Seven Ages of Man” Jacques laments the worthlessness of the aged:

“Last scene of all,
That ends this strange eventful history,
Is second childishness and mere oblivion,
Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.”

And then enter Orlando carrying the “aged” Adam.

Adam—the old retainer of Orlando’s family—who, when he discovers the plot of Orlando’s older brother Oliver to kill his sibling, not only warns Orlando and insists he take all the money he’s managed to save over the years, but follows Orlando into exile.

Here you have a man who, out of loyalty and love, risks all he has, including his life, to do the honorable thing; at age 80.  So much for Jacques’ “sans everything.”

Then there is the most obtuse of Shakespeare’s titular character: Macbeth.

Told by the three witches that his fate is to be the King of Scotland, Macbeth could have just kicked back and waited for the inevitable honor to fall into his lap.  But the weird sisters know their man, and by extension their woman (Lady Macbeth); both incapable of passivity, Macbeth especially.

Yes, Macbeth’s tale is “full of sound and fury,” but poor old Macbeth, dim-sighted to the end, fails to realize what it’s “signifying”; that we don’t descend timidly into hell one hesitant step after another, but boldly leap into its gapping abyss with the smug confidence of one absolutely convinced they’re making the right career move.

Now we come to the highly touted New York production of Small Mouth Sounds by Bess Wohl, directed by Rachel Chavkin currently at The Broad Stage in Santa Monica.

Premise-wise, the play has a lot of potential.

Six lost souls gather at a retreat offered by a bestselling life counselor for a week of mentoring, cleansing, contemplation and personal illumination.

There’s the bereaved father (Connor Barrett), the broken Alpha-male (Ben Beckley), the enlightenment junkie (Edward Chin-Lyn), the wounded hearted romantic (Brenna Palughi), and the couple faced with a cancer crisis (Socorro Santiago and Cherene Snow).  The faithful hang onto the droning words that drip from the lips of the unseen new age guru (Orville Mendoza), combing through them for some pearls of unvarnished truth of rejuvenation, of restoration, of hope.

Sacrifices are demanded, our social crutches and distractions are to be relinquished – no television, no cell phones, no texting.

No speaking.

A new age rendering of a monastic vow of silence is exacted from the truth seekers.

Small Mouth Sounds-Broad Stage

(l-r) Brenna Palughi (Alicia), Connor Barrett (Jan), Cherene Snow (Judy), Edward Chin-Lyn (Rodney), Ben Beckley (Ned), Socorro Santiago (Joan) (Photo by Ben Gibbs-Courtesy of The Broad Stage)

Here Ms. Wohl has given herself a challenge as a playwright, and the possibility of demonstrating to an audience one of the trade secrets known to the chosen few of theatre artists, poets and musicians; that the truth of many a piece is found in its places of silence.

At the end of the game, Ms. Wohl finishes with low numbers on both score cards.

In her characters, Ms. Wohl brushes over the difficulties they would face, and the initial frustration they would encounter.  (As anyone who has ever been strong-armed at a party into participating in a single round of charades will attest to.)

Nor does she delve into the process of how a group of people would learn to communicate with each other if denied words.  It is a tribulation.  Some of the more creative types would rely on pantomime.  Those from the general population would pull out the note pads and pens.

But not everyone has taken a beginning acting class and not everybody has legible handwriting and most problems we encounter don’t have either/or solutions.

Brushing over these elements would still have been negligible if Ms. Wohl had worked towards ensuring her characters were interesting and worthy of an audience’s empathy, but they are not.

But even with lacking fully-flushed out characters that are capable of inspiring sympathy, a work can still win over an audience if it is wrestling with “big ideas.”  Some audiences can even be won over when the “big ideas” before them is only a “straw man” parade assisted by a copious application of “smoke and mirrors.”  (“Pardon me did someone watching Fox News lose this copy of The Fountainhead?”)

The issues, with which Ms. Wohl’s characters are dealing, are all viable – grief, lost, betrayal, mortality.

Drama is found when a writer places a messy situation on stage and then proceeds to make it even messier; in populating their tale with damaged souls and then devising ways of wounding them even more.

Ms. Wohl’s drama is as messy as a square dance and instead of using a playwright’s sharpened quill in which to wound her “Dramatis Personæ” she has gone at them with a feather duster.  The result is an evening in the theater that is “tidy” if nothing else.

Director Chavkin could have provided no small service to the work if she had settled on it as a “drama with moments of humor” or a “comedy with flashes of insight.”

All drama must stride to pull the rug out from under the feet of its characters.  In dramas of the higher order, as those mentioned above, dramatists will devise clever ways of doing so that engages or surprises their audiences.

One method of disorder that the play seems to be setting up, but never gets anywhere near knocking down, is that which occurs when its half-dozen “personal growth” pilgrims look into the gaze of their self-help savior and find that the eyes are crossed.

Instead of the issue instilling in the truth-seekers an even greater desperation for communication between them, this issue, too, is passed over.

I used the above-mentioned plays of Shakespeare to illustrate his placing of the proverbial “rugs” under the feet of certain of his characters, and how he could pull that rug out even without the use of language.

Small Mouth Sounds doesn’t pull rugs out from under its characters’ feet.  It doesn’t even tug.  In fact, it doesn’t even have any rugs.

As for “…full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

Well not much verbiage is presented in this play so that nixes “sound.”

And the action on stage at the Broad is more sit-com than “fury.”

Finally, the ideas being thrown at the audience are all pitched underhanded with little call for the “signifying” of anything.

So no “sound,” no “fury,” no “signifying.”

What does that leave us with?

Written by

An award-winning L.A. playwright and rabble-rouser of note who has hoisted glasses with Orson Welles, been arrested on three continents and once beat up Charlie Manson. His first play, "Among the Vipers" was a semi-finalist in the Julie Harris Playwriting Competition and was featured in the Carnegie-Mellon Showcase of New Plays. It was produced at the NPT Theater in Ashland, Oregon and Los Angeles’ celebrated Odyssey Ensemble Theatre. His following play, “The Little Boy Who Loved Monsters” was produced at The Hollywood Actors Theater, where he earned praise from the Los Angeles Times for his “…inordinately creative writing.” The play went on to numerous other productions including Berlin’s The Black Theatre under the direction of Rainer Fassbinder who wrote in his program notes of Kearney, “He is a skilled playwright, but more importantly he is a dangerous one.” Ernest Kearney has worked as literary manager or as dramaturge for among others The Hudson Theater Guild, Nova Diem and the Odyssey Ensemble Theatre, where he still serves on the play selection committee. He has been the recipient of two Dramalogue Awards and a finalist or semi-finalist, three times, in the Julie Harris Playwriting Competition. His work has been performed by Michael Dunn, Sandra Tsing Loh, Jack Colvin and Billy Bob Thornton, and to date, either as playwright or director, he has upwards of a hundred and thirty productions under his belt, including a few at the Bob Baker Marionette Theater as puppeteer. After a wild and misspent youth, which lasted well into middle age, Kearney has settled down and is focusing on his writing, as well as living happily ever after with his lovely wife Marlene. Ernest’s stage reviews and social essays can be found at TheTVolution.com and workingauthor.com. Follow him on Facebook.

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