A Public Fit’s’ Small Mouth Sounds’ puts the sizzle in silence

Ned (Marcus Weiss) stands before the group.
Photo: Richard Brusky / Courtesy

It’s a juicy challenge for a daring theater company: produce a play in which characters have taken a vow of silence. It’s also a terrifying premise for all but the most intrepid theatergoer: What am I about to sit through? But rest easy, casual theater fans. A Public Fit’s Small Mouth Sounds is thoroughly compelling and highly entertaining. Just because someone can’t talk doesn’t mean they can’t communicate.

Bess Wohl’s critically acclaimed play follows the story of six seekers who attend a five-day silent retreat in a forested getaway. With varied pasts, problems and aspirations, they struggle with their lives in the loudest of quiet. “This is such a different way of telling a story,” director Ann Marie Pereth says. “I thought it was interesting, and it also scared the hell out of me.”

At curtain, a motley crew trudges in from the rain, nobody quite sure what to do with themselves in a silent retreat … except for yoga superstar Rodney (played by sexy Zumanity vet Mario Peoples). His knowing pretzel poses confound his cohorts and hide a deeper pain.

Actor Marcus Weiss plays Rodney’s roommate, the recovering sad-sack Ned, who wears a beanie to hide scars from a past injury. “I was surprised by the physical boldness [in the play],” says Weiss, formerly of Blue Man Group. “There’s so much quiet, and then all of a sudden people are throwing things left and right.”

Despite its serious premise, the play contains tons of idiosyncratic humor, much of it derived from the awkwardness inherent in a spiritual retreat. “It’s fun to do what amounts to film acting, clowning and physical comedy in the same show,” Weiss says.

The retreat is rounded out by the recently dumped Alicia (Jamie Carvelli-Pikrone), who wanders the wilderness in search of a cell signal—phone ban be damned. There’s the power couple Joan and Judy (Valerie Carpenter Bernstein and Dina Emerson, respectively), who are dealing with the emotional fallout from a medical diagnosis. And always ready to offer comfort is the gentle-yet-mysterious Jan (Timothy Cummings).

The six seekers gather to listen to their imperfect guru, a nameless character played with gusto by an offstage Erik Amblad. “Almost immediately, I realized that I had only 10 percent of my tools available to me as an actor,” says Amblad, who ditched body language to focus on his voice.

He sits in a small room, with an audio and video feed so that he can react to the actors in real time. It’s a clever mirror challenge to that of the other actors: They can be seen but not heard; he can be heard but not seen. From both halves, a powerful whole emerges.

SMALL MOUTH SOUNDS Through March 10, times vary, $25-$30. The Usual Place, 100 S. Maryland Parkway, 702-735-2114.

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