Ryan Rilette has seen and directed many plays, but there is one he calls “unique.”
That is “Small Mouth Sounds,” about six restless individuals who embark on a weeklong silent retreat in the woods in search of enlightenment and find much more than that – including the value of human connection.
The characters are unable – most of the time – to use an actor’s most reliable tool, their voices.
Their guru is the only one who gets to speak any amount – but he remains unseen.
“Small Mouth Sounds, by playwright Beth Wohl,” is the opening production of Round House Theatre’s 2018-2019 season.
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“I saw it two-and-a-half years ago at the Signature Theatre in New York, and it was unlike any other play,” said Rilette, who is Round House’s artistic director. “I had heard about it and was deeply intrigued, but it surpassed expectations.”
Wohl’s work is “like watching people at a train station – where you get very small details of people’s lives,” he said.
But what most impressed Rilette is that he walked out after the production feeling as if he had gone on a retreat himself – seeing brighter colors.”
It isn’t just that he happens to love meditation and yoga, so the subject matter of the play interested him. It was that Wohl “found a way to allow the characters complete stories, when most don’t speak at all.”
Maboud Ebrahimzadeh is one of the actors facing the challenge of performing wordlessly. He too has been impressed by Wohl’s play – particularly “the level of heart and depth,” he said.
But it is a challenge, he added, because a lot of what actors do is “lean on the language to guide you. We don’t have that here. A lot of the actors have only one or two lines, and there are only very small windows into the character in the text. We have to sit still most of the time.
“It’s a lot like a dance,” he said. “Every motion has to be calculated and measured in rhythm.”
While some people might think a director isn’t that critical when there are no words, Ebrahimzadeh disagrees. “Without our normal set of tools, a lot more rides on Ryan,” he said. “We look at our fellow cast members and hope it makes sense.”
Ebrahimzadeh plays Rodney, a yoga instructor from the Pacific Northwest who lost his studio because of sexual harassment charges, came east and married one of his students. Now their relationship is starting to fall apart, and Rodney responds by having affairs.
“Rodney’s journey is to come with that problem is inside him, the actor explained. “Sometimes the monster inside you can’t be killed. It has to be accepted in order to move on.”
A newly-appointed resident at Round House Theatre, Ebrahimzadeh will next appear “Oslo,” a dramatized, partly-fictional depiction of the negotiations leading up to Oslo Accord between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization, will play in the spring.
Also in the cast of “Small Mouth Sounds” are Katie deBuys, Timothy Douglas, Michael Glenn, Beth Hylton, Andrea Harris Smith and James Whalen.
Several newspapers listed “Small Mouth Sounds” on the Top 10 list of 2015. That same year Wohl won the Sam Norkin special Drama Desk Award for “establishing herself as an important voice in New York theater and having a breakthrough year.”
Content advisory: The production contains full-frontal male nudity (which the theater describes as “non-sexualized”).
“Small Mouth Sounds” runs Aug. 29-Sept. 23 at Round House Theatre, 4545 East-West Highway in Bethesda. To purchase tickets, call 240-644-1100 or visit the theater’s website at www.RoundHouseTheatre.org.
In addition to a few pay-what-you-can performances, the theater’s Free Pay program offers one ticket free of charge to a production of their choice for all high-school students in the D.C. area.