Brenna Palughi

Small Mouth Sounds comes to Long Wharf

Preview of Small Mouth Sounds, Long Wharf Theatre

Opening this week at the Long Wharf Theatre is the first stop of the six-city touring production of Bess Wohl’s Small Mouth Sounds, which debuted in New York at Ars Nova, 2015, and then ran Off-Broadway at the Pershing Signature Center, where it was a New York Critics’ Pick of 2016. Though intrigued by the show, I didn’t get to either of those productions. So this is a welcome opener for the Long Wharf’s 2017-18 season. The play is directed by Rachel Chavkin, who has directed the show from the beginning, but features an all-new cast. Chavkin was nominated for a Tony and won an Obie for her direction of Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812.

In the cast at Long Wharf is Brenna Palughi who I remember from her last year at the Yale School of Drama. In the 2009-10 season, she was featured in a show at the Yale Cabaret that was completely wordless and mostly in slow motion. Palughi’s silent scream in response to a catastrophic event has stayed with me for over seven years. It’s fitting, since the show that brings Palughi back to New Haven requires a lot of silent acting. Small Mouth Sounds concerns seven people—including a couple—who undertake a silent retreat in the woods.

Brenna Palughi, Connor Barrett, Cherene Snow, Edward Chin-Lyn, Ben Buckley, Socorro Santiago (photo: Ben Arons)

Brenna Palughi, Connor Barrett, Cherene Snow, Edward Chin-Lyn, Ben Buckley, Socorro Santiago (photo: Ben Arons)

Since her time at the School of Drama, Palughi has had a Broadway debut, as an understudy in A Time to Kill, and has acted Off-Broadway and on TV. She loves doing new plays and sees Small Mouth Sounds as “walking that thin line between comedy and tragedy.” The characters, she said, “really have needs and are willing to grasp at anything” in their effort to change their lives. Alicia, Palughi’s character, “is really sick of herself and how she’s living.”

“The more you invest in the characters’ lives, the more you get from the play,” Palughi said. The playwright’s presence at rehearsals gave the cast “a lot to work with,” as Wohl “dropped great tidbits” for the actors to consider, “opening whole new trains of thought.” Alicia, who Palughi characterized as “not great at being quiet,” is a part that requires, she found, a particular kind of empathy. A key realization for Palughi, in getting into character, is that Alicia “starts where a lot of people end up.” Which means that the back story of Alicia has to be understood by the actor and conveyed with almost no exposition. Alicia “begins in a shitty place” and the play’s situation offers her, perhaps, the means to a better place.

Palughi, who has taught movement classes, said that the play, in its lack of dialogue, involves the kind of physical theater she loves. “The body becomes a tool for storytelling, but in a realistic, naturalistic way. There’s no metaphorical movement, but there is a lot of humor and meaning in the body language of the characters.”

We all might benefit from more silence in our highly articulate world. Wohl’s play lets us see how complicated confronting one another and ourselves can be without words to help or to get in the way. At the retreat, where they are addressed by an unseen teacher, the characters are “supposed to exist with but not interact with each other,” Palughi said, which might be easier said—or not said—than done.

Small Mouth Sounds opens August 30 and runs to September 24.

For my review at the New Haven Independent, go here.

For a podcast on the play featuring myself and Lucy Gellman and Brian Slattery, go here.

Long Wharf Theatre


So we beat on . . .

muse, the final show of the Yale Summer Cabaret 2010 season, is an original dance-theater piece, a two-character drama that presents the story of Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald from the point of view of the afterlife. Brenna Palughi conceived the idea, scripted it in collaboration with her production team, Danny Binstock, Walter Chon, and Adina Verson, directs and choreographed the show, and stars as Zelda.  She finds in the story of these literary icons the kind of vivid fascination that, these days, attaches to the likes of Brangelina.  Scott and Zelda lived lives that were not only passionate and artistic, but were also emblems of their era, the Roaring Twenties, forever associated with them, both because of Scott's works, such as The Great Gatsby (1925), and the couple's lifestyle.

To present the reality of the couple, Palughi's script uses only the duo's actual words -- mainly from their considerably articulate correspondence.  But rather than try to recreate the events of the couple's life, Palughi cannily creates a retrospective fantasy, a kind of Satrean "no exit" space where the couple have to face eternity by trying to make sense of what they were to each other and why it went so wrong.

One of the most unforgettable moments, as a glimpse into the abyss the public couple tried to skirt, derives from a transcript of a session at the Fitzgeralds' home with a  psychologist (voice of Joby Earle) in attendance to act as arbitrator.  Zelda, who had wanted to be a dancer, published a novel, thus treading on her husband's territory.  Worse, she was now working on a novel based on events Scott was trying for years to draft as material for what would eventually become Tender is the Night (1934).  To hear Scott baldly declare the conditions under which his wife must live, in order to continue being his wife, is rather appalling to anyone who expects something closer to mutuality in marriage.  On the other hand, the position Scott speaks from is not really one of bullying strength, no matter how his words sound.  He is in need of Zelda, hence the title of the piece: muse.  Without Zelda's participation in his life, Scott seems to fear a loss of his bearings, but at the same time, any act she might take in her own interest would be considered a complete betrayal.

As Scott, Binstock enacts vividly Scott's nature via dance and dialogue.  He displays graceful self-control in a lengthy dance piece with Palughi that narrates the couple's entire story with considerable economy and aplomb, but we see the pressures he faces take actual physical toll on his movements.  And in his spoken protests and pleas Binstock shows us a Scott verging on a loss of control that, if it were to occur, might have been a saving grace.  Instead, we always feel Scott's grasp of himself, so thoroughly buttoned up in his lovely suits, no less tenacious for being tentative and vulnerable.  Only when he dances do we see some of the "light fantastic" that makes the prose so golden, so self-assured.

In a segment where word and movement are particularly well matched and powerful, Zelda kneels on the stage reading a letter from Scott comprised of nothing but hurtful, insistent, resentful, relentless questions while behind her Scott performs a marionette's series of jerks, slaps, and contortions.  Here we see the perfect visual realization of something almost inhumanly mechanical -- the way his concept of himself as a writer controlled Scott just as fiercely as his need to control Zelda.

As Zelda, Palughi's dancing is able to express an openness and abandon that seems, from all accounts, to have been part of Zelda's fascination.  But it's also fascinating to hear how lucid she could be, even when threatened with an asylum.  Palughi's voice at times gets strident but never veers into the kind of hysteria we might expect.  Her Zelda is verbally in control, even if her expression at times becomes a doll-like fixity, the mournful gaze of a spirit trapped forever in her husband's vision of her.

For all the tensions and darkness of this marriage, Palughi's sense of the material highlights its romantic potential.  Elizabeth Groth's costumes are lovely; her set is a world literally papered with words; the music -- Gershwin for instance -- breathes with rapture and jaunty melancholy; Sarah Lasley's newsreel-like projections add the necessary touch of the mediated reality that encroached on these lives, making them famous and a part of our nation's permanent record.

In the afterlife, "hell is other people," but if the people were truly a couple -- overriding even "til death do us part" -- it may be possible to see that the feeling "to be young then was very heaven" might also override all-too-human failings with the heady thrill of being "beautiful and damned" for all time.

muse;  conceived and directed by Brenna Palughi

July 29-August 14, 8 p.m.; August 7, 2 p.m.

Yale Summer Cabaret: 203.432.1567;