BETHESDA, Md. — The cast may be virtually silent, but the audience is roaring in laughter.
Behold “Small Mouth Sounds” at Round House Theatre in Bethesda now through Sept. 23.
“The play is about six people who are attending a silent meditation retreat, so you don’t really hear those six people speak,” director Ryan Rilette told WTOP. “There are big sections of the play that are completely in silence. … So, it really plays with your senses. It’s also incredibly funny. … It’s a bunch of damaged people at a retreat trying to fix themselves in some way.”
Written by Bess Wohl, the six people include a married couple battling cancer, a semifamous yoga instructor, a former child star and two other special guests we won’t spoil here. The one voice we do hear is that of the offstage meditation guru, who grows increasingly frustrated.
“When you think of a guru or meditation teacher, you think of somebody that’s perfectly centered,” Rilette said. “This teacher is not that person! This person is having a really rough week dealing with very personal issues. He’s got a very relaxed voice, ‘Take a deep breath,’ but he’s fighting a sinus infection, he’s got a really bad cold, something going in his personal life.”
Despite such a uniquely quiet premise, there’s still plenty happening on stage.
“It’s the least boring thing I think I’ve ever seen,” actress Katie deBuys told WTOP. “There’s always something very interesting happening on stage. There’s always some really full emotional moment or some incredibly fun comic gesture. It asks you to lean in a little bit.”
Preparing for such roles is tricky, having no words to communicate their characters.
“The playwright provides us with very detailed character descriptions at the beginning of the play but also says, ‘I don’t care if these facts are communicated to the audience,'” deBuys said. “We created these incredibly detailed back stories to these characters … but this is also a unique experience in that … I want them to layer their own story on top of what I’m doing. Hopefully what I’m doing is truthful enough that it becomes universal so people can relate.”
“We’re really just a blank canvas for the audience to project themselves onto,” actor Maboud Ebrahimzadeh said, as Rilette added, “That is done through the physical proximity to each other, the way they carry their bodies, essentially every other thing other than language.”
As for the physical script, it’s roughly three pages of dialogue throughout 28 total pages.
“It’s mostly stage directions,” deBuys said. “We did a lot of [improvisational] exploration, but the playwright is really specific about certain things that have to happen. I mean, it’s a play! It’s a story. … If you saw another production of this play, you would know that it’s the same play.”
What do we actually see on stage surrounding the actors?
“Set designer Deb Booth modeled this space so that it’s all very serene,” Ebrahimzadeh said. “There’s a lot of wood and warmth, there’s a lot of chairs. It’s got a very Eastern meditative feel to it so that when you come to theater, you’re going to see projections of trees, lakes, this soft golden wood — and you’re going to see six very weird people sitting on the stage!”
Things get extra weird — and hilarious — as Ebrahimzadeh strips down to his birthday suit.
“There’s a scene that takes place by a lake where Maboud’s character … thinks they’re saying, ‘Let’s go swimming,’ so he just gets completely naked and jumps in the water,” Rilette said.
“I’ve been naked onstage before, but Maboud is naked on stage for a long time,” deBuys said.
Beyond all of the wild antics, there are also some touching take-aways.
“If there’s one overriding lesson the teacher is trying to impart it’s that you can’t really escape it, you can’t run away from it,” Rilette said. “We do things like drink alcohol, smoke weed, get in fights, we do all these things in order to avoid that pain. But the teacher’s lesson is you just need to sit with all of it and make friends with it — and they do over the course of the play.”
Audiences might experience similar healing, albeit while their sides are splitting.
“It is a truly unique experience that is unlike any piece of theater that I have ever seen,” Rilette said. “What I look for in a piece of theater is something that expands my empathy as a human being, but also something that takes me on a ride. The great thing about this is that you are laughing uproariously one minute, then the next you’re unexpectedly tearing up. … We’ve had people already see it three or four times, because every time they see something new.”
Find out more on the Round House Theatre website. Check out our full conversation below: