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Stages

In ‘Small Mouth Sounds,’ they’re seekers, not speakers

Cast members Nael Nacer, Gigi Watson, Sam Simahk, Celeste Oliva, Kerry A. Dowling, and Barlow Adamson.
Cast members Nael Nacer, Gigi Watson, Sam Simahk, Celeste Oliva, Kerry A. Dowling, and Barlow Adamson.(Nile Scott Studios)

A play about six people at a silent retreat might seem like an odd subject, especially since most of the spoken word is limited to the voice of an unseen “teacher.” But playwright Bess Wohl, whose “Small Mouth Sounds,” opens Jan. 4, says she thought of it as a mystery.

“I wondered how much I could withhold,” she says, “so that the audience would lean in and bring their own ideas and experiences to fill in the blanks and determine how things would turn out.”

Wohl says the arc of her comedy — while not exactly traditional — follows the natural trajectory of a five-day retreat.

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“When you arrive, you bring your prior self, and over the course of the retreat you have to let go of that, and you come to a crisis point,” says Wohl. “Although it doesn’t exactly resolve, there is a moment of change, which is what we look for in drama, too.”

For director M. Bevin O’Gara (“Tribes,” “Clybourne Park”), “Small Mouth Sounds” marks her first return to SpeakEasy since taking over as artistic director of the Kitchen Theatre in Ithaca, N.Y. Wohl’s script, she says, is forcing her to think differently about her approach to directing.

“This is the first show where I feel I am the conductor, orchestrating the work,” says O’Gara. “Normally I do a lot of preparation before rehearsals start, but I found that I needed to see the bodies in space to map out how the scenes unfold.”

Unlike most plays, in which the actors on their own develop a back story for their character, Wohl provides detailed character descriptions to orient the actors to their roles.

“Although actors are famous for ignoring stage directions, almost the entire play depends on body language,” says O’Gara, “and there’s a precision to the stage directions the playwright has included. We talk a lot about the order of things, but also how little we need to do to make something happen. There is a wonderful simplicity to it.”

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While “Small Mouth Sounds” is light on dialogue, O’Gara says the pacing is swift and intense. And she says costumes and props communicate lots of information about who these people are, and how different they are from one another.

“This play asks audiences to fill in some of the blanks,” says O’Gara. “I love that people will come away with different ideas.”

Playwright Wohl says that when audiences come to watch a play, they take a vow of silence for the time when the lights go down.

“I’m playing with that idea,” she says, “while also telling a story about what makes people feel isolated, and what brings them together.”

Tale of two cultures

On the second floor of a nondescript office building in Needham, adults and children — many dressed in pajamas — are slipping off their shoes and stepping into a warmly lit room full of youth beds and cribs. Audience members select a comfy spot, where a beautifully hand-crafted black cloth rabbit is resting, and settle in for a charming dramatization of Kate DiCamillo’s “The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane,” presented by the Arlekin Players Theatre through March 3.

The 90-minute production employs the simplest effects to bring to life the story of the arrogant, if exquisite, porcelain rabbit who only learns the power of love and human connection through a series of misadventures with a fisherman and his wife, a hobo and his dog, a young boy and his sister.

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“My daughter read the book, and I loved the way the characters connect with each other through love, even if they can’t speak each other’s language,” says Igor Golyak, artistic director of the Arlekin Players. “We are a theater company made up primarily of Russian immigrants, where often the kids speak English better than the parents. I liked the idea of telling the story while shifting back and forth from English to Russian, and from adults to children.”

Golyak says “Miraculous Journey” is very popular on stages in Moscow, where three or four productions are currently running. He wanted the Arlekin Players’ production to be unique, so he reached out to his friend Alexander Huh, a director in Moscow, who developed a new adaptation in collaboration with designer Nastya Bugaeva. She created the rabbits that rest on each of the beds, along with the truly magnificent rabbit mask worn by Eric Andrews, who plays Edward Tulane.

“We have been producing theater for adults for nearly a decade,” says Golyuk, whose production of “Dead Man’s Diary” won an Elliot Norton Award last spring and whose production of Anton Chekhov’s “The Bear” won acclaim at national and international theater festivals. “I wanted to play with the notion that we are all children when we use our imagination to create a world around us.”

The bedtime story is brought to vivid life with the simplest of effects and with language that moves between Russian and English without missing a joke or poignant moment.

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“This is the first in our new effort to reimagine what Arlekin Players can be,” Golyak says. “But whatever we produce, we celebrate theater’s ability to build communities and connect across cultures through shared human experience.”

For tickets, go to www.arlekinplayers.com.

SMALL MOUTH SOUNDS

Presented by SpeakEasy Stage Company. At the Roberts Studio Theatre, Calderwood Pavilion, Boston Center for the Arts, Jan. 4-Feb. 2. Tickets $25-$70, 617-933-8600, www.bostontheatrescene.com


Terry Byrne can be reached at trbyrne@aol.com.