A play’s dramaturgy often serves to make the audience’s viewing experience reflect what the characters’ lived experience feels like.
Take Clare Barron’s Shhhh at the Atlantic Theater Company. The play’s fragmented nature and lack of conventional scene-to-scene continuity seems designed to echo the askew manner in which Barron’s main character (played by Barron) processes her life in the sustained fallout from a traumatic episode. Do you find it difficult to keep the focus of her story straight? Welcome to her life.
But Barron’s always been an intensely physical playwright, delving into the raw facts of living inside a human body. The dramaturgy can bring us inside the waywardness of her character’s mind, but how about the pained reality of her corporeal existence?
The Atlantic’s production devised a way to induce an approximation of this feeling in the audience’s literal bodies, for the (un?)lucky few who bought floor tickets. The first two rows were nothing more than uncomfortable cushions on the cold, hard ground, without any sort of back support whatsoever. Granted, this untraditional set-up achieves several functions: it helps to establish the casually-novel vibe, and it intersects with the frank explorations and depictions of intimacy (these rows offer an inherently more intimate relationship to the action; the seated look like a part of the set, sharing the same floor).
But here’s the thing: at least for fragiles like me, this arrangement caused my woefully out-of-shape frame severe discomfort for every moment of the play, crimps and cramps that lingered long after the curtain dropped. Which resembles how Barron’s character constantly feels the unresolved legacy of her abuse in her bones, a corrosive filter that tinges, well, everything.
Now, it’s borderline offensive to liken my aches to the excruciation of actual trauma…but that’s kind of art’s MO, right? A micro representation of a macro truth, while acknowledging that a couple of hours can never come remotely close to adequately capturing the full extremity of the presented deprivation.
Even so, there’s merit in feeling the physical pain of a play’s truth in our own physiques, to such a degree that we find it difficult to concentrate on anything else at times. During certain stretches, the play distracts us enough to forget the hurt; at other junctures, it’s impossible to ignore. And isn’t this part and parcel with the aforementioned dramaturgy, of how trauma alternately disassociates AND more deeply engages us with our surroundings?