“The plays I love and the parts I love are the ones that make people feel less alone. That’s a huge part of great art for me – human beings comforting one another with their shortcomings... The celebration of an extraordinary life is not going to make you feel less alone. But the examination of a flawed life or a life gone wrong or a life almost extinguished by shortcomings then brought back from the dead, that’s what makes us feel less alone.”
– Cherry Jones, interviewed by Alex Witchel for the New York Times

“I need to get a life. Real soon.”
– A Poet, danced by Andrew Ward in Joe Goode’s Hush

The six characters in a run-down bar in Joe Goode’s new full-length piece of dance theatre, Hush, comfort one another with their shortcomings, making them, and us, feel less alone. Goode fleshes out these characters brilliantly, through fragments of song, dance and dialogue seductively stitched together. Stray exchanges between the habitués of Sam’s Bar reveal the origins of their anxiety, inspired by actual stories solicited from audience members and friends of the Joe Goode Performance Group. From these stories spring the vibrant authenticity of the work, as well as its essential weakness.

The hour-and-fifteen-minute piece recalls the inventive, somewhat surreal Broadway production of Once, similarly set in an Irish tavern, for which director John Tiffany jettisoned Broadway musical conventions in melding Enda Walsh’s powerful dialogue with wistful songs and Steven Hoggett’s stormy outbursts of choreography built around “naturalistic” movement.

Goode has been experimenting with this format for decades, always pushing boundaries of performance. Hush is a gentler work than, say, his iconic 29 Effeminate Gestures, which involved power tools and overt displays of aggression. The message of tolerance and compassion in Hush is less strident, but no less compelling.

Powerhouse performances are delivered by the entire cast, led by Melecio Estrella, Damara Vita Ganley and Felipe Barrueto-Cabello. Estrella plays a shy, sensitive guy who just might be gay, and who forms an alliance with the sweet, empathic Ganley, a barmaid tortured by memories of rape. The two vow to protect each other, in a poignant gestural dance that is repeated several times throughout the piece, and finally by all six dancers in unison. Estrella is attracted to Barrueto-Cabello, another bar regular, who openly admires Estrella’s singing on open-mic night. Barrueto-Cabello hangs out a lot with Andrew Ward, a stay-at-home poet who stoically endures the verbal abuse hurled at him by his live-in girlfriend, danced by Jessica Swanson, who is obsessed with getting ahead in her sales career. Ganley is stuck in a relationship with bartender Alexander Zendzian, who makes clumsy attempts at understanding her, but angers her with his taunting of that “sissy” Estrella.

The dialogue in Hush is relentlessly banal – apart from an impassioned and funny speech by Estrella about asexuality and sexual attraction. Perhaps this is meant to drive home the oppressiveness of language, and our widespread failure to communicate. The lyrics to the plaintive songs that punctuate the piece are similarly trite, as is the final, defiant anthem (“I won’t hush / I won’t go quietly”.) Moments of sly humor come as a relief, as when Zendzian laments that his favorite team has just lost a game on television, to which Ganley reacts with a deadpan “Oops”. The dance and accompanying score are so forceful and expressive that the conversational rambling sometimes felt like a distraction – in contrast to the taut, spare poetry of Walsh’s dialogue for Once.

Goode’s choreographic genius is at its height in the intimate central pas de deux between Estrella and Barrueto-Cabello, and the brilliant episodic duets between Barrueto-Cabello and Ward, who express their pent-up frustrations by flinging themselves at a graffiti-covered wall. The only dance episode that rings untrue is the rape scene, in which three thugs accost Ganley as she walks home late at night. The movement is so stylized and dreamlike that it robs the rape of violence; the hoodies worn by the thugs also perpetuate an unwelcome stereotype. Had they worn tailored suits and ties, for example, and displayed real brutality, this scene would have had far more impact.

Hush’s prosaic production design is elevated by the sensational, offbeat amalgam of Ben Juodvalkis’s electronic music with sound effects by Foley artist Sudhu Tewari. Juodvalkis strums his computer unobtrusively in a corner downstage, but Tewari is installed upstage centre, from which vantage point he mimics and amplifies the sound of the characters’ movements – their footfalls, fumbling with key rings, slathering of butter on toast, chewing – through a myriad of exquisite low-tech devices. Like a magician, Tewari seems to have two or three pairs of hands, which are busy splashing water, tapping rocks on pieces of wood, clinking glasses and scrap metal shards, ripping Velcro, and so on. At one point he travels centre stage for a hilarious “duet” with Ward who is fretfully plopping cucumbers into a large jar of pickling brine while Swanson goes on a narcissistic tirade about her latest job promotion.

The exaggerative theatricality of Tewari’s heightened quotidian sounds fused with Juodvalkis’ atmospheric music climaxes in the aftermath of the rape scene: as Ganley’s body is racked with shudders, the score crashes around us in a rendering of a miniature Kristallnacht. Not since Stravinsky unleashed his Sacre du Printemps on a scandalized Parisian audience in 1913 has the score for a ballet been so transfixing.