Warning: Shhhh, a world premiere commissioned by Atlantic Theater Company from Clare Barron, Susan Smith Blackburn Prize-winner for Dance Nation, may just be the most visceral play you will ever see, describing all bodily fluids graphically from saliva to urine to feces and blood. It is not for the faint-hearted. Shhhh is meant for those who like adventurous, cutting- edge theater, performance that pushes the envelope. You may not like it but you will not easily forget it.
Written in two-character conversations, the play is both intimate and voyeuristic as though we were overhearing things not meant for us. It may be considered a feminist statement as the play’s five female characters reveal many personal thoughts and feelings not usually expressed on our stages. It will make you uncomfortable but that is probably the point.
The title is a bit of a misnomer: a more accurate title would be “Body Awareness” but Annie Baker has already written one with that title. It also could have as its subtitle “Expressions of the Five Senses” as it makes them all extremely vivid as though attempting to heighten our feelings. The play begins in a blackout with one of the characters who is later revealed to be Sally narrating an Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response (ASMR) meditation tape which is made up mainly of sound effects (memorably handled by designer Sinan Refik Zafar). We are later told a story about a man who skinned his arm on a boat and ended up in the ocean. Two characters visit the Morbid Anatomy Museum where they (and we) see bodies and body parts partly dissected. A cup of lavender tea, boiling hot, is offered to a guest. At a séance, incense is burned. Two people discuss their favorite pizzas including one with Canadian Bacon, mushrooms, and black olives. One character has periodic nosebleeds. A description of a purple field of heather in bloom is very evocative.
Plotless, it follows the daily lives of several characters who meet periodically. Shareen (played by author Barron) is a blocked playwright now working in television who is suffering from a great many illnesses. Her older sister Sally, a lesbian postal worker by day and a practicing witch by night, is referred to as Witchy Witch in the script. Shareen sees her friend Kyle, another playwright now working in social media for MSNBC, with whom she no longer has sex. Sally has begun seeing Penny, a non-binary woman, with whom she may or may not have similar interests. Shareen overhears two women, Francis and Sandra, in a pizza parlor discussing unprotected sex with men and their feelings about their selfish lovers in a very intimate way.
Directed by Barron, a triple threat here as author and actress as well, the acting is casual and real enough to suggest transcripts of actual conversations. In the central role, Barron herself gives a very complex and layered performance as Shareen whose problems are never entirely explained. One explanation that has been put forth elsewhere is that she is suffering from a sexual assault which has resulted in psychosomatic illness which makes complete sense in this context.
However, while Constance Shulman is fascinating and sinister as her older sister Sally, Shulman appears too much older to be Shareen’s biological sister. As Kyle, the only male character in the play, Greg Keller is quirky enough to give him many layers. As the two friends in the pizza parlor, the only scene in which we see them, Nina Grollman and Annie Fang have a conversation that could be a complete one-act play of its own, so involving is it. Janice Amaya as the non-binary Penny who interests Sally is mysterious, inscrutable and enigmatic.
Arnulfo Maldonado’s memorable setting puts an entire apartment on stage, from the bathroom to the dining area to the bedroom to the living room. A hidden alcove is revealed to be a pizza parlor and one of the exhibits of the Morbid Anatomy Museum descends from above. An actual kitchen is in the lobby area just outside the doors of the theater. The costumes by Kaye Voyce make the jump from realistic casual wear to very specific outfits (postal uniform, witch’s robes, etc.) Jen Schriever’s lighting is usually dim enhancing the intimacy of the play.
Shhhh is one of those unusual plays that could be nothing other than live theater but is not for the traditional theatergoer who expects stage performances to follow certain set rules. While Shhhh has no discernable plotline, it completely delineates the lives of its characters. It is an advance over Barron’s Pulitzer Prize-nominated Dance Nation but will have more trouble getting future productions. While it will make you queasy at times, you will know you have experienced a unique evening in the theater. However, it is definitely not for prudes or traditionalists.
Shhhh (extended through February 20, 2022)
Atlantic Theater Company
Atlantic Stage 2, 330 W. 16th Street, Chelsea, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 646-989-7996 or visit http://www.atlantictheater.org
Running time: one hour and 45 minutes without an intermission