Set at a silent retreat, the off-Broadway hit puts the onus on body language, while Centaur Theatre also goes wordless with Century Song.
The Montreal Gazette previews the next few weeks of theatre in Montreal, including the Geordie Theatre Fest: “an opportunity for the general public to catch up with what Geordie has been up to”.
Read on Montreal Gazette’s website: Theatre: Segal stays mostly mum for Small Mouth Sounds
Things will be oh so quiet at the Segal next week as Bess Wohl’s off-Broadway hit Small Mouth Sounds opens in the Studio. Featuring six characters in search of enlightenment, it’s a tragicomedy set in a silent retreat in the woods. While a guru delivers platitudinous wisdom via a microphone, his troubled clients are only permitted to communicate by non-verbal means (give or take the odd self-criticizing monologue).
The characters’ backstory is something audiences will largely have to piece together through a combination of body language and costuming clues.
For director Caitlin Murphy, this is a muffled world away from her 2018 debut production at the Segal, the wordy Ibsen do-over A Doll’s House, Part 2.
“It’s scary that there’s so much silence in this play,” says Murphy, joining costume designer Sophie El Assaad in a chat with the Montreal Gazette. “I usually think my strength as a director is text. A Doll’s House, Part 2 was very much about language and argument. So to be in a space with so much non-verbal action can be daunting. You’re kind of handcuffed. It’s like a meta version of what the characters are going through at the retreat.”
Given that there are few lines for most of the actors to learn, you might be forgiven for thinking rehearsals would be a cakewalk for them. Not so, says Murphy.
“The actors get so exhausted so quickly because they spend most of their time listening. We’re actually doing five-hours-a day rehearsals as opposed to eight.”
So it’s more tiring for actors just to listen than to plow through lines of dialogue? “Isn’t that like life?” Murphy laughs. “It’s easier to run our mouths off than to actually listen to people.”
The play that seems to come up most in discussions of Small Mouth Sounds is Michael Frayn’s farce send-up Noises Off, the second act of which involves characters silently negotiating a series of backstage mishaps. Coincidentally, Murphy assistant-directed it at the Segal back in 2017, and she’s now reliving “how much pressure there is in creating clarity of gesture. You can’t always control where audiences will look.”
“It’s like curated people-watching,” is how El Assaad puts it.
El Assaad, who has won or been nominated for several METAs for her designs (and was spotlit last month as one of the Gazette’s local artists to watch in 2020), has a particular challenge on her hands with this play.
“I don’t often do plays that are so set in reality,” says El Assaad, who designed the dazzling baroque costumes for Cabal’s recent show Chattermarks. “This one’s a bit of a tug-of-war between complexity and simplicity.”
By way of example, she talks about the sweet oddball character Ned: “He’s lost almost everything in his life. We came to the conclusion that he doesn’t really own a lot, so his clothes might have been given to him. Nothing really fits him.”
Regarding another character, Alicia, El Assaad describes how “a lot of her movement has to do with calling attention to herself. So she’s got a lot of bangles and accessories that make lots of noise. It really comes from this dark lack of being heard and loved as a human being.”
Such angst is summed up by the Buddhist aphorism “life is suffering,” which opens the published version of the script. But Murphy argues Small Mouth Sounds isn’t about Buddhism, or any other specific belief system. Nor is it, she says, a play that earned its laurels just by being clever-clever.
“I feel so much of the play is about reminding people of the importance of things that are essential to being the animals that we are, that we so easily put to the bottom of the list,” says Murphy. “When we rediscover them, it’s always with this feeling of awe. If you go into a forest, you’re like, ‘Oh, trees, that’s awesome, how did I forget about trees?’ I think the play is really interested in how essential are the things we’ve been ignoring, and what are the consequences of that. That’s why, to me, it’s not just this gimmick of how do you play a silent retreat?”
Mum’s the word over at Centaur, too, as Dora Award-winning soprano Neema Bickersteth’s acclaimed one-woman show Century Song plays from Wednesday to Feb. 16.
Created in 2013 in a co-production between Volcano Theatre and Moveable Beast, and a big hit at the 2018 Edinburgh Fringe, it’s a kind of journey through time as Bickersteth performs several examples of the wordless genre known as vocalise (it rhymes with “bees”), beginning with Rachmaninoff in the early 20th century all the way to a new piece created especially for her by Reza Jacobs.
In a phone conversation from Toronto, Bickersteth explained how Century Song went from being a showcase of her versatility as a singer and of her burgeoning dance skills, to something richer and coherent under director Ross Manson and choreographer Kate Alton’s watchful eyes.
“The three of us were sort of thinking, ‘What is this show?’ ” recalls Bickersteth. “I basically sang and danced this series of songs that spanned a century. And both Ross and Kate looked at each other and said, (Virginia Woolf’s classic novel) ‘Orlando!’ Because it’s a journey of a person going through time and changing, even though it’s the same person.”
The team also drew on Alice Walker’s In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens, which, Bickersteth says, posits “the idea of who a woman might be and what she can do in different time periods,” and “the fact that we keep going forward, we just keep going doing what we have to do for the next generation.”
Throughout the 60-minute piece, Bickersteth undergoes a series of costume changes as she is reimagined as, say, a jazz singer in 1930s Montreal or a factory worker during the Second World War. Projections from German company fettFilm add some spectacular visual context.
The aforementioned Sophie El Assaad also designed the costumes, as well as the sets, for the two productions that close the Geordie Theatre Fest this weekend at the Strathearn Centre (a.k.a. the MAI).
Alexandria Haber’s The Water Chronicles is a playful but thought-provoking piece for age five and up, about a young girl who discovers the mysterious and essential world of water. Michaela Di Cesare’s Fear of Missing Out is for age 13 and older, and follows a group of young friends as they investigate a string of assaults at a bus stop. Both plays have been touring schools, community centres and libraries; this is an opportunity for the general public to catch up with what Geordie has been up to.
AT A GLANCE
Small Mouth Sounds is presented from Sunday, Feb. 9 to Sunday, March 1 at the Segal Studio, 5170 Côte-Ste-Catherine Rd. Tickets: $45; discounts for students and under-30s subject to availability. Call 514-739-7944 or visit segalcentre.org.
Century Song is presented from Wednesday, Feb. 12 to Sunday, Feb. 16 at Centaur Theatre, 453 St-François-Xavier St. Tickets: $46; students $35.95; seniors $43.70; 18 and under $15.25. Call 514-288-3161 or visit centaurtheatre.com.
Geordie Theatre Fest presents The Water Chronicles (1:30 p.m.) and Fear of Missing Out (4 p.m.) on Saturday, Feb. 8 and Sunday, Feb. 9 at the Strathearn Centre, 3680 Jeanne-Mance St. Tickets are pay-what-you-can. Call 514-845-9810 or visit geordie.ca.