Theater review: Broken Bone Bathtub
My entrée to Broken Bone Bathtub was somewhat chaotic. As it was pouring down rain, my non-umbrella’d self scurried around the Oakley neighborhood in which this strange traveling piece was to be presented. Finally, with the help of a kind usher (who happened to be Jim Julien, co-artistic director of the Asheville Fringe Festival) shouting from the correct house’s deck, I was guided up a narrow wooden spiral staircase to the top floor of the building.
Once inside, I was soothed by the unmistakable ethos of your classic Asheville bohemian domicile. Strings of Christmas lights illuminated complimentary wine and hummus. On the walls were embroidery with messages like “Eat the Rich” and a sticker of a cat with a lighting bolt and the words “Ziggy Meowdust.”
None of the domestic details would be important if this was any other type of theatrical experience. But Broken Bone Bathtub is unlike anything you’re likely to see — maybe ever. It’s a traveling, site-specific solo show (now nearing 500 performances) that takes place in bathrooms donated for the cause by generous locals. In this case, the “stage” was a beautiful claw foot bathtub in East Asheville, and it was here that a tiny audience, limited to eight people, squeezed into the bathroom (your critic sat on the toilet) to watch Siobhan O'Loughlin take a bath.
As the performer tells the story of her broken hand — which was injured in a serious bicycle crash in Brooklyn a few years ago — she weaves in musings on more profound topics: Connection and isolation, grief and trauma, love and loss. In the process, she invites audience members into a loose discussion of those same themes, and the show becomes a powwow that straddles the line between performance art and group therapy.
During a lighting-quick 75 minutes, tears are shed and personal truths are disclosed. As O'Loughlin speaks about holding the hand of a manicurist after her bike accident, she asks all assembled, “When was the last time you held someone’s hand?” After disclosing her tears shed in a doctor’s office right before resetting her bones, she inquires of the men, “Have you ever cried in public?”
O'Loughlin’s rapport with the audience is what elevates Broken Bone Bathtub from a fringy curio to a powerful immersive experience. Organically, and with apparent ease, O’Laughlin creates a container where the audience feels free to empathize with her experiences and share their own. She is, of course, nude, although well-placed suds keep it a PG-rated affair. O'Loughlin’s physical nakedness, along with her arresting honesty and frank vulnerability, seems to give permission to the audience to ease into the experience and open up about how we can relate.
“Intimate” doesn’t really do the production justice. O'Loughlin learns the audience members’ names and makes eye contact with each one. She requests back scrubs and hand massages, and is flexible enough with her monologue to allow free flowing discussion if a particular topic sparks interest. Broken Bone Bathtub is a true communion with the audience in a way that most theater, including self-proclaimed “immersive” or “audience-interaction” pieces, usually aren’t.
I personally went into the experience a little nervous. It’s not like a normal play where you can anonymously slip into a row, allow the lights to darken, and disappear after the curtain call. This show demands interaction and self-identification. But it doesn’t really demand you to disclose anything. O'Loughlin requests it, and her manner is so earnest, her blue-sparkled eyes so curious, you can’t help but spill your guts.
I think live theatre is increasingly valuable because it demands something more from its audience than Netflix or Facebook. Broken Bone Bathtub takes this concept a step further. It’s not just entertaining or thought provoking, although it is both of those things. It brings a small group of individuals together in an authentic and even healing shared experience. That’s a feeling I never want to wash off.
Broken Bone Bathtub runs through Sunday, April 28 at secret locations in the Asheville area. For tickets, visit brokenbathtub.com.
(Photos courtesy of Broken Bone Bathtub)