Review by Wes Babcock
Mouthpiece speaks so strongly for itself that I don’t have to. Moreover, I don’t want to. Let me explain: there is a scene in the show in which we are explicitly made aware of the internal perception that every word and action the character expresses is part of a constant performance for the approval of some visible or invisible man. This makes me not want to grant the show my approval or disapproval. This makes me want to shut up. The show speaks and moves on its own merit, and hardly needs my approval to stand as a magnificent piece of theatre.
But here I am, it being my job to explain the sentiments that theatre makes me feel and the reasons for those feelings. So I will do my best, lest my silence be seen as insincere, or worse, lazy and insulting.
Mouthpiece is a wonderful embodiment of the contradictory multitude of voices that speak through our society and inside our own heads; it makes for a transcendent experience that hits you straight in the guts on every level of meaning.
The most initially striking aspect of this performance is the powerful vocal harmonies and dissonances demonstrated by creator/performers Amy Nostbakken and Norah Sandava. It begins in the dark with harmonies that become subtly and slightly discordant at times, and are rather haunting. As the lights come up, we discover the sounds are being made live by a pair of women in a bathtub, at which point the song becomes spoken words. The perfect unison of the shared speech breaks smoothly at the end, with a difference in word choice, each actor choosing a slightly different synonym to end their line.
Symbolically, this is the perfect opening for this show, as we see the women support one another vocally and physically, only to fall short of complete unity of expression and gesture. As the show develops, and the character of Cassandra attempts to put into words the entire life of her mother for her eulogy, the discord becomes more severe. The conflicting voices she has internalized through her life become more and more adamant that there is no right answer to who her mother was, what she stood for, or how to represent her importance.
The choreography throughout the show is sharp, physically unifying and splitting the aspects of Cassandra’s psyche with deliberate intention as the voices echo inside her head from harmony into dissonance and back.
Nearly every aspect of this show was executed with vivid and deliberate energy, from the physical performances of Nostbakken and Sandava, to the technical and set design. Nothing was frivolous; nothing was absent, and each element complemented the others with a consistency that is rarely demonstrated. I was particularly impressed by the lighting design which, in its use of side- and low-angle light, really helped bring out the terrifying aspects of the performance when it needed to.
There is only one thing about the execution of the design that I noted as a distraction from the through-line of the show, which is the speakers necessary for the practical use of the microphone set-piece buzzed quietly throughout the show. I wasn’t sure if this was a deliberate decision or not. Symbolically, it could work well, but it would have to be more obviously integrated with intention into the story.
Minor quibbles aside, this show not only depicts the voices that echo violently through the head of “a modern woman,” and lead to a practical paralysis of smiling and swallowing whatever adversity is delivered to her, it also addresses the intersectionality of these issues with those of the privilege inherent in the identity of the teller. This story needs to be told, and Mouthpiece tells it with spectacular and vivid power.