Review: In 'Shhhh' by Clare Barron, staging a memory of the body

To get to your seat, you walk past someone’s toilet, posted next to their sink, above which their pill bottles sit on a shelf. Hard to ...


To get to your seat, you walk past someone’s toilet, posted next to their sink, above which their pill bottles sit on a shelf.

Hard to get more intimate than that.

And yet that is exactly what “Hushmanages to do. The new piece, written by, directed by and performed by Clare Barron, is explicit and sometimes uncomfortable, but all for the right reasons.

Arnulfo Maldonado’s exquisite set design for the show, which opened on Stage 2 of the Atlantic Theater Company on Monday, really makes the space feel like an apartment-turned-theatre rather than the other way around. There remains this bathroom. And in one corner, partially obscured by a wall, a mattress lies on the floor, the sheets ruffled on it. Hanging candles and string lights create an alluring atmosphere, but industrial-looking metal rolling carts add a fresh touch. And the spectators in the first rows are seated on cushions on the floor, extending the cozy atmosphere.

“Shhhh” begins with Sally (named Witchy Witch in the program and performed by Constance Shulman) recording an ASMR meditation. The sound is destabilizing. Shulman’s signature grater seems to envelop space as she narrates what she’s doing – she talks about the Lysol wipe she’s using as we hear the sound of the rag moving, amplified by a mic, and she taps her fingernails against a ceramic cup, telling us it’s full of lavender tea. She speaks slowly, stretching the syllables of each word as far as they could go from the theater, to Chelsea, to the East River. (The sharp sound design is by Sinan Refik Zafar.)

Sally, a postal worker, says her job makes her feel close to people, even if that intimacy isn’t real. She goes on an average date with Penny (Janice Amaya), a non-binary person who shares that she feels more comfortable and in control of her body during sex parties.

Sally’s sister is Shareen (Barron), a playwright with lots of “health stuff” who has a codependent and often consensually uncertain sexual relationship with a male friend, Kyle (Greg Keller).

And Francis (Nina Grollman) and Sandra (Annie Fang) are, well, two random young women talking about agency and consent in a pizza place while Shareen, seated at another table, listens silently.

“Hush! does not have a traditional narrative; there is no antagonist and there is not really a causal link between the scenes. The work itself feels like a series of flirtations: discomfort, aggression, insecurities and heartaches are hinted at and discussed, but not detailed. We don’t get stories or explanations. We just understand the way these people talk, move and touch in relation to each other. It is telling that most of the sexual acts mentioned are acts of penetration and discharge, but much less often the simple delights of a caress or a kiss.

The conversations of these characters are visceral: they talk about gushing wounds, sheets covered in excrement, bodily fluids of all flavors. Although this should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with Barron’s works, which include “I will never love againand Pulitzer Prize finalistdance nation.” She has made a specialty of writing what is essentially a staging of the memories of the body. Barron rarely opts for the romantic idea of ​​pleasure, instead examining pleasure related to physical abuse and emotional manipulation, shame, self-esteem, and trauma. The whole production suffers from an unspoken loneliness.

This pain shines through in Barron’s direction, but also in the performances, directed by Barron herself, which envelops Shareen in a delicate melancholy. His gaze seems to drift away serenely but without satisfaction. She seems unstable. And yet its darkness also belies a fierce hunger; Throughout the show, Shareen plays with her food, squeezing scraps, crumbs and flakes from her plate or table with her fingertips and bringing them to her mouth, almost compulsively. The figures move consciously – in the way they bow or cross their legs – and seem to carefully cover the distances between them, as if wading through a river to the other bank.

Keller is believable as a friend who soon realizes he may have to hold himself accountable for some questionable behavior in the bedroom, and Grollman, Fang, and Amaya, who wear the show’s most eclectic clothes. (offbeat costume design is by Kaye Voyce), giving top performances in small roles. Shulman is less compelling as Shareen’s older sister, supposedly only two years old, despite the nearly 30-year age gap between the two actresses. Shulman’s monotonous drawl is a comedic novelty at first, helping many jokes land, but this delivery, dry as a desert dust storm, gets boring.

The other problem is the series’ erratic pacing. A Looney Tunes hunting scene and mystical ritual seem endless. While other scenes are too short, and the characters lack depth. Amaya has a bubbly energy, but their character is less developed compared to others. And the characters of Francis and Sandra only speak in one scene, in the pizzeria, though the dialogue is incredibly compelling: candid exchanges about what it’s like to be a woman in a modern dating world, and romantic metaphors about isolation and longing. I could have watched an entire broadcast of that conversation.

I walked into this show expecting the grotesque and maybe even the gratuitous, especially once I passed a sign in the theater warning the audience about the nudity and content of the play. Nothing triggered or offended me, not even Shareen’s description of her diarrhea or the sight of a used DivaCup. (I can’t say the same for everyone, especially the three audience members who pulled out at the start of the show, never to return.)

But then there was a moment that got to me, when Francis and Sandra talk about how the men they’ve dated have manipulated the way they get what they want, like unprotected sex . As Francis recounted a drunken negotiation she had with a guy, my body stiffened. The exchange was so familiar; it reminded me of my own sticky encounter with a date.

While this moment in the show may have made me feel uncomfortable, I was also grateful for the scene, and even for the prickly feeling it inspired – theater should sometimes cause us discomfort. After all, the greatest intimacies we can hope for, as spectators, are those we build between our seats and the stage.

Hush
Through Feb. 20 at Atlantic Stage 2, Manhattan; atlantictheater.org. Duration: 1h40.

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