Theater couldn’t get more intimate than Siobhan O’Loughlin’s Broken Bone Bathtub, performed in an actual bathtub for an audience of five.
It is, I should add, not a ritzy suburban bathroom, but a small one in a fourth-floor walkup. With the original location falling through at the last minute, the show has been moved to what turns out to be an ideal setting for this combination of solo theater, performance art, and storytelling.
Submerged in a tubful of sudsy water, wearing nothing but a cast on her hand, O’Loughlin welcomes us into what feels like a true-life narration. As the hour steams by we learn that after a bicycle collision broke her hand, to protect the cast and gain some human companionship she has asked a friend with a bathtub (her apartment has none) to lend her its use. It’s a very specific story, made even more naturalistic when she intersperses her sequences of narration and reminiscence with improvised conversation with the audience. Those nearest may even be asked to assist with ablutions too difficult to do with only one hand.
As she gets to know us we feel more and more like we’re having a real real tête-à-tête with a friend. At the same time, the narration and the artifice of the character – along with (unavoidably in a bathroom) the situation – repeatedly restore the performer-audience dynamic. One finds one can exist in a weird zone and a comfort zone at the same time.
In bits and pieces the performance brought to mind Andrea Kuchlewska’s Human Fruit Bowl, Marina Abramovic’s audience-challenging performance art, and even daredeviltry like Houdini’s upside-down straitjacket escapes or David Blaine’s encasement in ice. The story of the bike collision itself is a mere kernel, from which she floats away on tangents encompassing subjects ranging from politics and health insurance to friendships and embarrassments, crowned with a poetic paean to compassion, her primary theme.
The result is less a theatrical experience than an internal one. In forcing us to engage directly with her, O’Loughlin’s performance demands we delve into ourselves. How willing and able we are to do so will determine how much we get out of the show.
With a fine balance of talent and charm O’Loughlin invites us into the most intimate of nonsexual activities – and makes us comfortable doing it. And you will certainly be able to say you’ve never seen precisely this kind of theater before. Broken Bone Bathtub runs indefinitely on Monday evenings (no performance May 29) at a location that will be announced shortly before each performance. Tickets are $35 and include wine.