‘Small Mouth Sounds’ is a play of few words and a lot of heart; Reinaldo Moya’s ‘Tienda’ at TPT

Small Mouth Sounds
Photo by Dan Norman
Michael Curran-Dorsano, Jim Lichtscheidl, Becca Hart, Faye M. Price, Christina Baldwin and Eric Sharp in “Small Mouth Sounds.”

To quote the teacher in Bess Wohl’s play “Small Mouth Sounds”: “Think of this retreat as a vacation from your habits. Your routines. Yourself … After this, you don’t ever have to go back to who you were.”  He’s talking with his students about a weeklong meditation retreat in the woods. He could be describing a night at the theater.

Isn’t a play a break from our real lives? Shouldn’t it change us, at least a little? Don’t we hope that will happen? We have this in common with the characters in the play, as they set out to find themselves. And we share something else as well: We’re supposed to sit quietly. So are they. They’re on a weeklong silent meditation retreat in the woods.

“Small Mouth Sounds,” which opened Saturday at the Jungle Theater, is a 90-minute play with little dialogue and a lot of heart. The teacher (Jay Owen Eisenberg) is heard but never seen. Anyone else who speaks, except during official Q&A sessions, is cheating. The characters largely communicate through facial expressions and gestures.

Joan and Judy (Christina Baldwin and Faye M. Price) are a loving couple. Ned (Michael Curran-Dorsano) is awkward, anxious and socially inept. Jan (Jim Lichtscheidl) is eager to go along and fit in but kind of clueless. Rodney (Eric Sharp) is a self-centered YouTube yoga celebrity. Alicia (Becca Hart) is glued to her iPhone. As the play unfolds, we learn that all are facing a crisis or have experienced a great loss. Or several losses. We think we’ll learn everyone’s life story, but we’re left to imagine most of them.

We care enough about the characters to wonder why they have come, what they expect and how this will ultimately affect them. It’s a credit to the production that our attention doesn’t flag. You can’t take your eyes off it, and you shouldn’t, or you’ll miss something. Laura Keating’s direction reveals just enough to keep us hooked. Reid Rejsa’s sound and Karin Olson’s lighting take us into the woods, with birdsong at dawn and a lake nearby. Mina Kinukawa’s set makes good use of the Jungle’s turntable, moving us from a meeting room to the outdoors to three small cabins and one awkward roommate situation.

“Small Mouth Sounds” is not an earth-shaker, and it’s more funny and gently touching than deep. But it has some wonderful moments and reveals, and Wohl (and Keating) take care to respect each character’s humanity. Eisenberg (fresh from Latté Da’s “Hedwig”) is brilliant as the teacher, telling stories and parceling out wisdom, if that’s what it is, through coughs and sneezes, punctuated with a wicked laugh. “I dreamt that a lawnmower was mowing a lawn,” he exclaims. And “Perhaps you are the teacher and I am the student.” And “When you see the ohhhhhhhh-shun, you might not be able to return to the well.”

Early in the play, while going over the ground rules, the teacher says, “Clothing is optional.” That got our attention. Other productions have contained nudity. Relax, this one doesn’t.

A regional debut, “Small Mouth Sounds” continues at the Jungle through June 16. FMI and tickets ($40-50).

The picks

Tonight at Open Book: Ladan Osman: “Exiles of Eden” book launch. Born in Somalia, poet and essayist Osman is “a ‘naturalized’ alien citizen” whose “status as an American seems less secure than ever.” Her second full-length collection (her first won the Sillerman First Book Prize) considers what it means to be a refugee – from a country, from a marriage, from memories of a photograph of Emmett Till’s open casket – in language you can taste. “Exiles” is out on Coffee House. Osman’s reading at Open Book will be hosted by Milkweed Books. 6 p.m. Free.

Poet and essayist Ladan Osman to read at Open Book tonight.
Photo by Kirsten Miccoli
Poet and essayist Ladan Osman to read at Open Book tonight.
Tuesdays through Sundays at the Walker: Skyline Artist-Designed Mini-Golf.  Now open for the summer, this is upscale, elevated mini-golf (all 10 holes are designed by artists, and you play it on the Walker’s rooftop), but it’s still silly fun. In case you’re a regular, this year brings two new holes: “Color Wheel” by Tom Loftus and Robin Schwartzman (up to four players can putt at the same time) and “Piece of Cake,” also by Loftus and Schwartzman. What’s next for those two, the Wisconsin Dells? Hours are the same as gallery hours. FMI and tickets ($10/8). Closes Sept. 29.

Jessica Abel
Courtesy of the artist
Jessica Abel
Wednesday: Meme Culture and Comics: A One-Day Symposium in Three Parts. One of those parts is full up – a workshop – but the other two are show up, and all are free. First, from 4-5:30 p.m., Moon Palace Books will host a conversation with Shannon Wright, Blue Delliquanti and Greg Hunter, moderated by Caitlin Skaalrud. After that, run over to the Parkway for a 7 p.m. artist talk by Jessica Abel in conversation with Rain Taxi editor Eric Lorberer. Abel is author of “La Perdida” and “Trish Trash: Rollergirl of Mars” and editor of “The Best American Comics.” FMI and RSVP for a chance to win prizes. Co-presented by Rain Taxi and the U of M Department of Art.

Thursday at TPT: Schubert Club Mix: “Tienda.” The world premiere of a new opera by Reinaldo Moya and Caitlin Vincent will be partially staged in TPT’s Studio A. Five singers and the VocalEssence Singers of Our Time chorus will tell the story of Luis Garzón, the first Latino to make a permanent home in Minnesota. Moya is the Schubert Club’s composer-in-residence. With singers Bergen Baker, Juan Carlos Mendoza, Clara Osowski, Adrian Rosas, Matthew Valverde and an ensemble of six musicians. At 172 East 4th St. in St. Paul. 7:30 p.m. FMI and tickets ($30). A second free community performance will take place at Neighborhood House on Saturday, May 25, at 2 p.m.

Friday at Mia: Alarmél Valli: Flowers of the Kurunci: Melding Dance, Poetry and Music. If you’ve ever seen a performance by Ragamala Dance and wondered how a group of 21st-century women can bring a 2,000-year-old Indian dance tradition to vibrant life, Valli is the answer. She’s been Ragamala’s guru, or teacher, for decades. Come to learn more about that relationship,  the dance form called Bharatanatyam, and the multidimensional nature of dance. In the Pillsbury Auditorium. 6:30 p.m. Free, but tickets are required; 612-870-6323.

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