At first blush, it seems like a show about silence wouldn’t really mean anything. On the contrary, it means everything to six weary pilgrims searching for answers to life’s deepest questions in Bess Wohl’s rave worthy play, Small Mouth Sounds.
The 100 minute intermission-less show, brilliantly directed by Rachel Chavkin, was spawned after Wohl’s own experience at a silent retreat at the Omega Institute in Rhinebeck, NY. Here, she was inspired to craft a work based on individuals she met there. “The biggest question I had in writing this is, ‘should we be searching for peace or actually doing things?’, she said in a recent interview.
One of her creations was the character of Rodney who, in the script Wohl describes as an “ageless, fit, gorgeous Asian or Southeast Asian who teaches yoga in New York and the Hamptons and is married to a woman named Nadine.” He’s also cheated numerous times with several students over the years and defies rules. After seeing the show twice, I’d describe Rodney in much briefer terms: a “pseudo-enlightened charlatan.”
Babak Tafti, who plays Rodney, perfectly embodies the “ageless, fit, and gorgeous” bill , but his real-life personality runs contrary to Rodney’s conceited persona. Tafti originated the role when it premiered last year at Ars Nova and continues to star in this production, Tafti shared some reflections on the role as we chatted recently at the Signature Theater, where Small Mouth Sounds is slated to run through September 25th. Although he doesn’t consider himself a particularly spiritual individual, he drew inspiration for the role through teachers that he’s had in the past. “I learned a lot about the smile that hides what happens underneath,” Tafti said. He also did a lot of yoga at Grad school (Yale), and went to India prior to the rehearsal period where he tapped into true yoga beliefs.
Small Mouth Sounds is truly a unique experience, both for the performers and the audience. In spite of his prestigious degree, Tafti was unprepared for Wohl’s play. “When I first read the script for the first time, my mind wavered between ‘what is this’ and ‘this is cool’. It was just so different and I wasn’t sure how to approach it during the audition,” he recalled. “But it was also kind of refreshing. Since I didn’t know exactly what to do, I just learned how to be.”
Tafti also gained a quick education about nudity in front of his cast-mates and strangers. During a rather humorous skinny dipping scene, Tafti bares all, much to the shock and superficial delight of audiences. “When it came to that moment in rehearsal, I knew that I just had to do it and be comfortable with it. If I was, then others would be just as comfortable,” he explained. “I remember taking a deep breath and then just dropping my drawers!” When he first learned that the role called for it, he had many doubts. He phoned his mother, who resides in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Believing that her actor son was performing in a sleaze show, she offered solace. “Honey! If you need money, I can give it to you!” she said. Wohl also recalled the first time they rehearsed the scene. “I’m kind of a prude and I was so embarrassed! I thought that this was all my fault, but Babak was just so cool about it!”
Performing the show eight times a week takes an incredible amount of focus, but Tafti is grateful for the opportunity. He now finds it easier to listen and tune in much more clearly at auditions and while he is acting. “Listening with all of your senses can be surprisingly exhausting,” he said. “After the show, we’re all so tired,” he confessed. (Although some in the cast muster enough energy to frequently dine at their beloved Chirping Chicken restaurant on 43rd and 9th). “There is something about mindfulness and focus to the nth degree that really wears us out. Walking into Times Square after our performances is a shock because our senses are hyper sensitive,” he added.
Wohl’s vision for the show came from an impulse about what extended silence would look like on stage. She believes that silence breaks our habits with how we interact in the world. “This way, we get to a deeper sense of self that is greater than our story or our biography, which is written by us or even or parents before we are born,” she said. “To me, that idea of silence is a paring away of those stories to get to a sense of presence.”
In composing the work, the Brooklyn native also avoided the pitfall of pushing an agenda or offering a lesson. Instead, she likens her play to a “multi-faceted object that can be viewed in several different dimensions.” “I didn’t want everything to be tied in a bow with a cliché Hollywood ending,” she confessed. “There is uncertainty with all of these characters. I feel that way about life, too. You try to change a little bit, but you still find yourself repeating negative patterns.”
Change is a significant thread throughout Small Mouth Sounds. “I was interested in exploring how we change, can we change, and what causes us to change,” Wohl said. “Everyone who goes to this silent retreat is trying to change on some level.” She feels as though the play was co-authored with the audience because audiences “meet themselves in this play,” she said. “It’s been really moving to discover how much people have evolved after this play in ways that I never could have anticipated.”
When asked if her characters have indeed undergone a transformation, Wohl looked at me with a wry smile, laughed, and said, “What do you think?”
Personally, I’ve been contemplating the piece since I first saw it over a month ago, and I have my own reflections. The layered piece became even more profound after sitting through it a second time. It’s no surprise that it made major critics’ top 10 Best Theater list last year. In the midst of our chaotic and loud world, Small Mouth Sounds is the perfect antidote. It’s better and more therapeutic than any shrink session—at a fraction of the cost.
Small Mouth Sounds plays Off Broadway at the The Pershing Square Signature Center (West 42nd between 9th and 10th) through September 25th. For tickets and information, visit http://smallmouthsounds.com/