by Brittany Crowell
“Indulge yourself,” the witchy witch entices after leading us through a gratifying ASMR tea time. Shhhh by Clare Barron at the Atlantic Theater Company’s Stage 2 space promises intrigue, however the piece only begins to skim the surface of turn-ons and the gray areas of consent surrounding them.
The story is set up as a series of tableaus into the kinks and traumas of sex. While independent scenes fly off the page, Barron’s attempts to focus in on three title characters falls short of providing the richness and history needed for connection or growth. As a piece that isn’t afraid to talk about sex, gore, bodies, and fluids, Shhhh often leans too heavily on the physical while shying away from any true emotional depth.
The play’s lead, enacted by playwright and director Clare Barron, is performed with a knowing melancholy, however, the audience is only let in so far, missing the richness of history in her relationship with sister Witchy Witch (played by a quirky Constance Shulman) and her past lover, current f***-buddy Kyle (played by a caring and vulgar Greg Keller). The play climaxes in a ritualistic witch-brew and a carnal disco dance, however, without building the tension around the characters and their emotional struggles, it comes off as more of a misplaced rave than a final release and cleansing.
The most successful tableau we see is that of side characters Sandra and Francis, played by an energetic Annie Fang and a wily Nina Grollman. As two young women discussing their sex lives late night at a pizzeria, these characters are the most relatable, most empathetic, and hold more depth and history than the title characters.
Scenic designer and lighting designer Arnulfo Maldonado and Jen Schriever respectively create a space that is warm and dark with fairy lights, floor cushions, neon colors, shadows, and hand-cut stars. There is something scary and unknown about it, while there is also something warm and familiar. The space feels incredibly intimate and comfortable with a hint of darkness around the edges, much like the show’s content itself.
Costumes by Kaye Voyce invoke each character with ease, showcasing Shareen’s hippie free-spirit, Kyle’s casualness, Penny’s (played by a shy and charming Janice Amaya) fabulous androgyny, and Sandra and Francis’ youth and glow.
At the end of the day, Shhh is a tease. It promises sex and kink and emotional depth and looking deeply at trauma and assault, but it gives only a hint of these items, too afraid to fully indulge in the seduction.
SHHHH – written and directed by Clare Barron
FEATURING: Janice Amaya (Penny); Clare Barron (Shareen); Annie Fang (Sandra); Nina Grollman (Francis); Greg Keller (Kyle); Constance Shulman (Witchy Witch)
Sets by Arnulfo Maldonado; costumes by Kaye Voyce; lights by Jen Schriever; sound by Sinan Refik Zafar. Presented by the Atlantic Theater Company: Neil Pepe, artistic director; Jeffory Lawson, managing director. Atlantic Stage 2 (330 W 16th Street, New York, NY 10011). https://atlantictheater.org/production/shhhh/