Photograph: Courtesy Ahron R. FosterShhhh
  • Theater, Drama
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4 out of 5 stars

Time Out says

Theater review by Adam Feldman

Suspended above the stage in Shhhh is a see-through box with a life-size figure of a supine woman inside it: a nude Sleeping Beauty in Snow White’s glass coffin, maybe, ready for some prince’s nonconsensual kiss. But what may at first look like flowers on her belly is in fact a mound of her own exposed viscera. She is an Anatomical Venus, bowels splayed, and she lies amid death masks, syphilitic genitals and other creepy curios at Brooklyn’s now-defunct Morbid Anatomy Museum—which, in Clare Barron’s strange and disconcerting play, is the scene of a first date.

Shhhh is not easy to parse, but it is centrally concerned with the vulnerability of women’s bodies, which it explores in graphic terms that sometimes spill into the grotesque. Sharp-witted and oblique, the play seems acutely personal: Barron not only wrote and directed it, but also plays the central role of Shareen, a rising playwright—Barron’s previous works include the brilliant Dance Nation and You Got Older—who suffers from a range of mysterious health problems. She still hooks up with her ex, Kyle (Greg Keller), a somewhat less successful writer who is “really determined to teach me new things about my body.” (That includes, in one early scene, dipping his toe into her nether regions.) He seems nonthreatening, but Shareen’s eldritch elder sister—who is only two years her senior, but is played by the sixtysomething Constance Shulman and whom the script calls Witchy Witch—is suspicious of him. “Sometimes I find that the people who think they’re most generous are really the most selfish,” she observes. “They’re just better at manipulating people than everybody else to get what they want without having to ask for it.”

Shhhh | Photograph: Courtesy Ahron R. Foster

In Shhhh’s navigation of rape culture, that’s just the tip, if you will, of the iceberg. At one point, Shareen eavesdrops at a pizza joint as two young women (Annie Fang and Nina Grollman) share lively war stories about gray-area violations of consent: late nights, intoxication, pressure not to use condoms. “Sometimes I think if someone were to give me a button and say: If you push this button you could kill all the heterosexual men in the world, I would be ethically obligated to push that button,” one of them says. This seems to spur Shareen to explore abusive role-play with Kyle; meanwhile, Witchy Witch matter-of-factly woos a nonbinary love interest (Janice Amaya) with the promise of controlled electric shocks. (Witchy Witch works for the post office but also has a sideline in ASMR; that is part of the inspiration for the play’s title, which may also evoke the soothing purr of the date rapist.)

Barron stirs these ingredients and others into a troubling cauldron, and the play can be challenging to take in; its uncorseted structure of scenes and vignettes and near-absence of traditional plot sometimes make it seem like working notes toward a play rather than a finished work. To some extent that is surely by intention, and some scenes that were confusing on first pass clicked into place for me in retrospect. Even so, and despite the production’s persuasively low-key performances, one wonders whether an outside director might have helped shape it to be even more effective, especially in the longer Witch sections. But Barron’s thoughtful ambivalence cuts through the occasional mess. She’s up there under glass for us, spilling her guts.

Shhhh. Atlantic Stage 2 (Off Broadway). Written and directed by Clare Barron. With Barron, Constance Shulman, Greg Keller, Janice Amaya, Annie Fang, Nina Grollman. Running time: 1hrs 45mins. No intermission. 

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Shhhh | Photograph: Courtesy Ahron R. Foster


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