When you purchase your ticket for Broken Bone Bathtub, the confirmation email you receive will contain directions not to any specific theater, but rather to a residential building somewhere in Chicago. The venue changes from night to night, ensuring that no show is exactly the same.
Upon arrival at the third-floor apartment in Rogers Park where the evening’s entertainment was to take place, we were ushered into a living room which served as a sort of theater lobby. When the performance was about to start, we were asked to arrange ourselves by height. Carefully, methodically, the producer and usher arranged us in the bathroom around the bathtub, where performer Siobhan O’Loughlin sat fully nude, her only costume some bubbly suds and a dash of glittery blue eyelid makeup. We sat on stools and boxes, packed in like Tetris pieces — one patron was seated on the closed toilet seat. When we were ready to start, Siobhan raised her head and began to speak quite suddenly, without preamble. She spoke with such an easy familiarity that it seemed less like the start of a show, and more like jumping into a fascinating conversation that is already clipping along at a good pace by the time you start to pay attention.
About fifty percent of the show is devoted to Siobhan’s sharply scripted story of how she broke her hand in a biking accident, and how the experience made her rethink her views regarding pain, intimacy, closeness, bathing, and the many chilling injustices of our world. The other fifty percent is almost entirely interactive. Throughout her tale, Siobhan will pause and ask a member of the audience a question, usually about something very personal. Audience participation is a dicey game to play, but it works marvelously here – partially because of the unusual setting, but mostly because Siobhan is remarkably good at creating camaraderie in the space.
The questions she asks are a good mix of pointed and open. At one point, she asked me: “When was the last time you held somebody’s hand?” Which led me to confessing that it was probably over a year ago, at which point the audience member next to me held out their hand, and I took it. This led to a brief conversation about online dating, how horrible it is, how touch-starved we are as a culture. And when we reached a natural conclusion, Siobhan simply moved on in her story, and my fellow audience member let go of my hand – and somehow, it all felt relevant to the moment she had been trying to describe. There is a particular wizardry required to make that work; to make your small audience feel like they can safely participate, while keeping a tight hand on the rudder of the narrative ship. As a result, the audience walks out of the bathroom having developed meaningful bonds with their fellow spectators.
Mashing together the best things about theatre and group therapy alike, Broken Bone Bathtub creates something that is exponentially greater than either. It recreates the feeling of a quiet, juicy conversation with close friends in the dead of night, where your words split open the universe and explore its strangest possibilities. Yet importantly, it also has urgent, relevant things to say about what we should do with our pain, and how to handle this often crushing world with kindness, compassion, and empathy.
Broken Bone Bathtub runs at various locations throughout Chicago until November 11th.