Searching for enlightenment? Some say it can be found in downtown Bethesda.
That’s where Round House Theatre (RHT) is kicking off its season with “Small Mouth Sounds,” Bess Wohl’s hit off-Broadway play that explores the experience of six people participating in a week-long silent retreat in the woods; they are seeking inner peace.
“It is a comedy-drama,” explained Ryan Rilette, RHT’s artistic director and the show’s director. “There’s a lot of humor to this, but there’s also a lot of tears in the play. I think people will laugh a lot and they’ll be very moved.”
Because the characters in “Small Mouth Sounds” are on a silent retreat, the play unfolds with minimal dialogue, and the actors rely mainly on gestures and expressions to convey the plot. “The play has very little language,” Rilette explained, “but the experience of watching it doesn’t feel like it is silent because there’s so much communication about what’s going on. It’s just silent communication.”
That made the casting process a bit unusual. “It’s sort of an impossible play to audition for, so I didn’t audition for it,” the director said. Instead, he chose seven actors who he knew very well and had worked with before in some capacity. Then he kicked off rehearsals with a day-long silent retreat, complete with meditation and guru-guided exercises, for what he calls “a perfect cast.”
“Like all of the work we do, it’s an ensemble play,” he added. “That’s what we do best.”
The ensemble cast includes Katie deBuys, Resident Artist Maboud Ebrahimzadeh, Michael Glenn, Beth Hylton, Andrea Harris Smith and James Whalen as the six city dwellers embarking on the silent retreat, along with Timothy Douglas as the unseen guru who challenges them to seek peace.
Katie deBuys, who plays Alicia, brought her own experiences in the outdoors to the show.
“I consider myself, definitely, to be a very spiritual person,” said deBuys, who grew up in Santa Fe, New Mexico. “And my personal spirituality is definitely linked to the nature and the environment of the Southwest.” Santa Fe, she explained, is at an elevation of about 7,300 feet in the lower Rockies, “and going out hiking in the forest and the mountains feels like I’m communing with something greater than myself.”
Last seen at Round House as Jane In “Miss Bennett: Christmas at Pemberley,” deBuys pointed out the differences between that show and the current one. “‘Miss Bennet’ was a beautiful confection of hilarity and heart — with talking in it,” she explained. “‘Small Mouth Sounds’ definitely has elements of humor, but it’s a really deep play with complex people having a complex experience. ‘Small Mouth Sounds’ really has a lot for the audience to chew on.”
For deBuys, who has a bachelor of science degree in theater from Northwestern University and a master of fine arts in acting from the University of Texas at Austin, working with the ensemble cast has meant honing expressions and reactions so that each character, though silent, has a clear personality and presence.
“The teacher is a voice that the characters can see, but the audience does not see — and the teacher has the majority of the text in the show,” she said. “There are a number of scenes where the audience is watching the students — the people on the retreat — react to the teacher as he speaks.”
There’s one long character monologue, and one scene where one character speaks, but, “that’s pretty much it.” The rest of the cast doesn’t utter a word.
The script has extensive character descriptions, deBuys said, noting that Alicia is trying to achieve a spiritual awakening. The playwright offers insight and backstory, and the director works with the actors to extrapolate motive and personality.
“Even though there’s no text, Bess Wohl has written a play, and we’re doing the play that Bess wrote,” deBuys noted. “Any play, whether it’s Shakespeare or Pinter or Shepard, will be the play that the playwright wrote —- if the artists collaborating on it are doing their jobs.”
She added that for her the most surprising and exciting element of “Small Mouth Sounds” has been its humor — even without spoken dialogue.
“It’s certainly different,” she said. “As an actor, you’re trying to tell the story through everything, right? Through the text, and your gestures, and your body language and facial expressions — the way you physically move through the space and relate to the people and the place and the furniture.”
Removing the text, she said, “takes away anything to hide behind. So, everything becomes amplified. I find it to be quite freeing and exciting. It’s a very different way of working.”
Maboud Ebrahimzadeh agrees, to an extent. “Not having lines is in some ways a challenge, in some ways a blessing,” said the actor, who plays Rodney, a yoga instructor. “Language is one of the tools we use the most for communication in general, and it’s difficult when you don’t have the words to rely on, to lean on.”
But acting without words has made him — and the rest of the ensemble — dig deeper. “Every little micro-expression on your face can tell an enormous amount, a whole narrative.”
Using facial expressions, body language and even posture in lieu of words is not a concept that is foreign to us, he observed, just one that’s not often utilized. “In a sense, it’s not new at all, but it’s a unique situation.”
A situation that calls for what Ebrahimzadeh called “physical language,” and he sees it as a wonderful challenge for an actor. “It’s not a matter of learning something new,” he said. “It’s a matter of re-learning, in depth, something we already know about how to communicate.”
Ebrahimzadeh said that before joining the ‘Small Mouth Sounds’ cast, he had never experienced a silent retreat. “I think everybody has an idea of what the typical ‘guru’ idea is, what that caricature looks like. Personally, I attributed it to be something kind of hokey, and a little far-fetched, self-indulgent.”
But after listening to a real guru and practicing silence and meditation just for a day, he started to see things differently. “After four to six hours of silence, a voice is a very powerful thing,” he said. “At first, I mocked it, and then afterwards, I couldn’t believe how silly it was to mock it.”
Which brought him closer to his character, though Ebrahimzadeh said they’re two very different people. But that’s part of the challenge.
“This play presents a lot of interesting situations,” he said. “There’s going to be this very intriguing experiment where you’re watching other people pay attention to something as opposed to watching other people do something. It’s going to require a little more focus, a little more attention to be paid. Where are you going to focus your attention?
“I think it’s going to be a cool experiment, one that we’re all a part of.”
“Small Mouth Sounds” runs through Sept. 23 at Round House Theatre, 4545 East-West Highway, Bethesda. Performances start at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. For tickets, which start at $30, with discounts available to ages 30 and younger, senior citizens, military and veterans, call 240-644-1100 or visit www.roundhousetheatre.org.