Missing Sense 

Clubbed Thumb’s production of Angela Hanks’s Bodies They Ritual begins to work its magic on the audience even before the lights dim.

Technically, this sentiment applies to all shows, courtesy of any preshow sights and sounds. BUT, Bodies They Ritual takes it a step further.

Or, should I say, a sense further.

As soon as the audience walks in the theater, even the mask-clad can smell the bushels of lavender dangling over the stage. Before actually learning the play unfolds at a spa retreat, this relaxingly minty-fresh scent immediately conveys the setting.

Correction: it doesn’t merely convey. Because smell is the most evocative sense of the five, the aroma transports us to a spa, and all the stimulative associations that come with it. We should enter a calm, meditative, even therapeutic state, one the characters are about to strive to feel, and the play chronicles the obstacles, hurdles, and facilitators on their journeys to refresh the self.

Which got me thinking: why the heck does theater so rarely utilize the power of smell?!

Live art would be wise to deploy every means of expression in the arsenal to engage and activate the audience’s senses, immersing us in every facet of the constructed worlds. A micro example, now at The Pit: the baby-oil lathering in the final moments of The Rise and Fall of Jean Claude Van Damme.

An example of its lack: Epiphany, now at Lincoln Center. As the audience plops in their seats to gaze at the antique mansion on display — an all-important locale for the story — onlookers can observe the crackling fire at the center of the living room. This visual immediately establishes the scene…but imagine if audiences were enveloped in the musk of those faint embers, too?? Our olfactory glands are a direct source of memory recall, and anyone who’s ever spent time in such a casa will remember how much the smoldering logs of a wood-burning hearth contributes to the overall musty vibe.

Then again, perhaps this sense-deprivation is by design? One of Epiphany’s major themes is the lingering yet inaccessible impact of the past, and its illusory influence on the present. As such, an “artificial” fire, sans smell, might read as thematically apter than a fuller-realized version, a deliberate blockade that inspires a grappling with the play’s treatment of fact and fiction.

Even if we give Epiphany this thematic pass, such a defense can’t be mounted for most productions, many of which would benefit from wielding this largely missing sense at their disposal.

A theatrical motto to live by: do as Clubbed Thumb does.

Or, as David Cromer does! His landmark revival of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town — a memory play! — used the smell of cooking a morning breakfast to emphasize what the characters so dearly miss about their childhood. What defines adolescent nostalgia more than that smell? Why describe in words what cannot be vividly expressed as potently (pungently?) as the real thing?

That was almost 15 years ago, and I still remember the wafting from the Barrow Street stage. Since then, there have been scant other examples.


P.S. Both Bodies They Ritual and Fat Ham constitute masterclasses in fog machines.

P.P.S. Epiphany: guilty as charged!

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