Speaking at a Silent Retreat: An Interview with “Small Mouth Sounds’” Orville Mendoza

Noah Golden

The majority of plays are centered around, as Hamlet put it, “words, words, words.” From Shakespeare’s soliloquies to Mamet’s fractured urban poetry to Durang’s whimsical prose, dialogue is often the most important aspect to any given play. But what happens when your play features almost no dialogue at all? Bess Wohl’s “Small Mouth Sounds,” which is playing New Haven’s famed Long Wharf Theatre from August 30-September 24, is such a work. It takes place at a silent retreat and only contains a handful of spoken lines, most of which comes from the mouth of actor Orville Mendoza.

Mendoza, who plays the retreat’s omnipresent but unseen guru, was born in Manila and raised in Southern California. He later moved to New York where he has starred in two Broadway productions (“Peter And The Starcatcher” and “Pacific Overture”). The Drama Desk nominee has also appeared in national tours and dozens of Off-Broadway and regional work including “Road Show” and the Public Theater’s “Romeo & Juliet.”

To learn more about being the most talkative one at a silent retreat, I spoke to Mr. Mendoza via email. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Can you tell me about “Small Mouth Sounds?”

“Small Mouth Sounds” is a play written by Bess Wohl inspired by her own experience participating in a silent retreat. In her play, six participants come to a rural campus to try to work through issues they are dealing with through the help of a guru-like teacher -- who is played by me. His technique uses silence to reconnect them with their inner-selves so there is very little dialogue in the play but that doesn't mean it isn't packed with humor and pathos and complete story arcs for all of the characters. It's a very full evening emotionally and spiritually.

What are some of the unique challenges or benefits of performing a play with very little dialogue?

So, I have the opposite challenge from my castmates in that I am really the only voice you hear throughout the duration of the play, but you never see me. Where they only have their bodies and facial expressions to express what they want and need, I only have my voice. It really is a beautiful convention. In a play about connection and communication, it's fascinating to see how we communicate with the loss of one of our communicative tools. My castmates don't have their voice, and I literally don't have my body. But even in silence and absence, the play is loud and clear in its expression about human connection. 

What attracted you to this project?

The biggest things that attracted me to the project were working with our amazing director, Rachel Chavkin [Tony-nominee for directing “Great Comet”], and Bess' beautifully written characters. Many times, you see a guru character who has it all together, who is more or less a charlatan or a control freak. The way Bess has written this teacher, I believe that he is a sincere person with good days and bad days. He's found a genuine method to navigate the roller coaster of life and he is teaching these people how to do the same. His recent existence has probably revolved around helping others so much that his own self-care has taken a little bit of a back seat. He knows life isn't always easy or beautiful.  There's a moment when he runs into his own crisis of faith. When I saw that the teacher wasn't perfect and is also searching for connection and acceptance as much as his students are, I was immediately attracted to the role. 

Does being a Filipino American actor influence your work?

I grew up in a very devoutly religious family. Issues of spirituality in this play resonate deeply with me. As an artist of color, I've been blessed to have played a wide variety of roles of different cultural backgrounds. Sadly, I've only played Filipino characters maybe 3 times in my 20+ years as a professional actor. Although Bess doesn't specify the Teacher's ethnicity, it was important to me to make my interpretation of him distinctly Filipino. It's an homage to my roots and to my father. 

What are you hoping audiences will get out of “Small Mouth Sounds?”

There's a message of hope and community in the play and though we all come from different backgrounds and are different hues, we all go through similar struggles. There's the idea that we complicate life more than it needs to be. But the biggest idea in the play for me is that no one is perfect, and in that imperfection, no one is ever really alone. 

For more information, visit www.longwharf.org.