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In March of 2020, co-artistic directors David Henderson and Susannah Hough of Honest Pint Theatre Company made an announcement in their company blog: "We have cancelled our April show, Small Mouth Sounds. We hope to produce it in August, providing this pandemic is over […]." Of course we know how that went. In August, the company postponed Small Mouth Sounds again and instead hosted their first online event. Through 2021 they kept an active blog to remain connected to the community as the pandemic wore on, barring artists from the stage and audiences from the seats of brick and mortar theaters. Now, two years later, Honest Pint has made their return to live theatre with the production they were forced to cancel, Small Mouth Sounds. With that kind of lead up, it's a good thing they delivered.
Small Mouth Sounds, by Bess Wohl, provides a sort of snapshot into the lives of six characters as they converge at a remote retreat in the woods, each seeking some sort of answer to their own existential questions. With each of the six either hanging on by a thread, pretending to cope with what feels impossible, or floundering for a sense of purpose, somehow Small Mouth Sounds is still a comedy. And for a public two years into triaging damage control through this pandemic, it is overwhelmingly relatable. Wohl's innovative work poses a unique challenge, and perhaps a gift, to the actors in that the story is carried almost completely by non-verbal interactions. The characters on the retreat have agreed to a vow of silence and, to that end, there is no back story, no exposition to set the scene, and hardly any dialogue used to develop the characters. The scenes transition through the itinerary of the five-day retreat with the guidance of the Teacher (Dorothy Recasner Brown), a god-like voice heard but never seen, but the onstage developments occur with little to no spoken dialogue. And while this runs the risk of actors over-indulging in non-verbal gestures to get their points across, with the direction of Jeri Lynn Schulke, Honest Pint's skilled ensemble played it just right.
David Henderson immediately established Jan as the company sweetheart, elevated further by Erin West's spot on costume design. West's designs continued to clearly characterize each cast member throughout the production with excellent attention to detail without caricaturizing anyone, an accomplishment mirrored by the cast. Henderson conveyed the perfect, genuine "nice guy" by setting out chairs for the others, smiling and greeting everyone, and happily making space for all of his scene partners as each interaction unfolded. Henderson's onstage relationship with Barbette Hunter's Judy made for some of the most intimate scene work, despite being the only non-romantic partnership that develops from the retreat. Hunter played exquisitely into both Judy's suffering and strength alongside Judy's partner and character foil, Joan, played by Susannah Hough. Both Hough and Hunter were excellent at silently illuminating the joys and strife of a couple whose opposites attract, and Hough found humanity in what could have easily been interpreted as an entitled and unsympathetic Joan.
Humanity proved an over-arching theme both literally, in the voiced monologues from the expressive Brown, and thematically, in the character work of each performer. Like Hough with Joan, Chris Hinton overcame the temptation to caricaturize the barefoot, bare-chested, yoga-posing Rodney. Hinton exposed Rodney's obvious sense of self-importance with ease, but also captured moments of sincerity as his character developed. The most poignant of these occurred in an unexpected corner of the pseudo-love triangle that develops between Rodney, Ned, and Alicia. Although brief, Rodney and Ned's simple interaction proved most redeeming for Rodney's otherwise exhibitionist sort of style. Alicia, played by Megan Montgomery, proved to be the antithesis to Rodney, and also the character best supported by props designer Claire Martin. Alicia's overflowing totes and blankets and snacks provided a physical manifestation of her unapologetically scattered psyche. Montgomery revealed a multi-dimensional woman, both vulnerable and unapproachable, yearning for and fearing human connection. Ira David Wood IV's Ned, perhaps written to be the most relatable character of the retreat, rounded out the company as reserved and slightly timid amongst the array of confident counterparts, or at least those pretending to be. When Ned delivers the most spoken lines of any character in the production it is both unexpected and refreshing.
Honest Pint has infused their name brand into this production of Small Mouth Sounds. The honesty of each individual performance created a rich and complex offering, almost without saying a word. The element of silence throughout the majority of the play challenged the actors to produce onstage connections in an unexpected and highly effective way, thanks to the talent and commitment of the ensemble. Simple and comprehensive scenic and lighting designs from Derrick Ivey and Anthony Buckner, respectively, allowed character development to draw the focus while the props and costumes provided other design details needed to support and propel the plot. For this long-awaited opening night, two years of a life-altering pandemic has added new significance to a production already rich with humanity – and all things messy, beautiful, heart-breaking, and joyful that come with it.
Small Mouth Sounds continues through Saturday, April 2. For more details on this production, please view the sidebar.