Only once does anyone call anything “disgusting” in “Shhhh,” a play written, directed and starring Clare Barron that seems designed to make theatergoers uncomfortable*. Kyle (Greg Keller) finds it disgusting that Shareen (Barron) likes to eat raw mushrooms. This can only be intended as irony, because he says this while sitting on her toilet, after having just told a story in grotesque detail about a man’s gory dismemberment in a boating accident, and right before he starts fiddling with her sexually, using his toe. This early scene is arguably the most graphic, but most of the nine scenes of “Shhh” contain enough to justify the Atlantic Theater Company’s extensive note on trigger warnings, ranging from “frank discussion…around sexual assault” to “strong aromatics.” I’d add: explicit references to bodily fluids and functions.
Barron is best known for “Dance Nation,” a play that used the story of a team of 13-year-old girls from Ohio who are participating in a national dance competition as a way to offer a funny, knowing and, yes, blunt look at adolescent girls at their most awkward, messy, curious, and adventurous.
One can imagine some of the characters of “Shhhh” as those adolescent girls from Barron’s “Dance Nation” ten to twenty years later, having moved to New York City, their adventurousness leading them to discoveries, disappointment and something near despair.
Unlike “Dance Nation,” which was a finalist for the 2019 Pulitzer Prize in Drama, “Shhhh” has no accessible narrative frame. It’s a collection of vignettes connected largely by a theme – the pains and pleasures of the body, and the emotional consequences of those sensations. (Does it say anything that the “intimacy direction” and the fight direction in this production are both overseen by Unkle Dave’s Fight House?)
Some of the focus is on Shareen, who is struggling with widespread physical ailments and intense psychological problems. She finds herself in an unhealthy relationship with Kyle (too unhealthy, I’d say, to call it a relationship.) “I am a machine for other people’s desires,” she tells us in a monologue. “And I don’t quite know how that happened or how to make it stop.”
But the play spends as much time with Shareen’s older sister, Sally (Constance Shulman), who is a postal worker by day and a witch by night (referred to in the program as Witchy Witch.) Shareen and Sally do spend time together (including a scene where they drink a witch’s potion full of….fluids.) But there are a couple of long scenes in which Sally goes on weird dates with someone she just met, Penny (Janice Amaya) – one of which is among corpses at the Morbid Anatomy Museum (There was such a museum, apparently, in Gowanus)
And then what is probably the longest (and I suspect most crucial) scene in the play takes place in a pizza parlor where Shareen is overhearing (but not participating in) a conversation between two strangers at another table. Sandra (Annie Fang) talks at length to Francis (Nina Grollman) about what was in effect a sexual assault – although a complicated one, because she gave her consent. “I set my limit and then he asked me to change my limit in a moment where I was drunk and vulnerable and that makes me feel violated. And also angry.” Francis then shares her similar experiences. “when have men-in-general ever respected female bodies.”
Barron has said that writing “Shhhh” was therapy for her after she was sexually assaulted. She’s also said she hasn’t written a play since 2016 (the date when “Shhhh” was written) although she has worked on scripts for television.
I’d like to support a playwright of such obvious talent, even when the play is as disjointed as this one, and the shocks in it so often feel gratuitous. As a director, Barron has put together a production that is well-acted (including by her), and efficiently designed for Atlanta Theater Company’s odd subterranean space on 16th Street. This is why I’d like to compare “Shhhh” to the “contraption,” plugged into an electrical device, that Sally uses on Penny on their second date. As she explains, it shocks Penny “everywhere I touch you…Either tickle or hurt. Whatever you want.” You’ve been warned: Whether the shocks tickle or hurt is up to you.
*The discomfort extends to the seating. Rows AA, A, N and M offer cushions, not chairs. Avoid them.
Atlantic Stage 2 through February 20
Running time: 100 minutes with no intermission
Tickets: $46.50-$81.50 (student rush: $20)
Written, directed and featuring Clare Barron
Scenic design by Arnulfo Maldonado, costume design by Kaye Voyce, lighting design by Jen Schriever, sound design by Sinan Zafar, and intimacy and fight direction by Unkle Dave’s Fight House. Laura Smith serves as production stage manager.
Cast: Barron, Janice Amaya , Annie Fang, Nina Grollman, Greg Keller, and Constance Shulman
Photographs by Ahron R. Foster