Inside everyone, perhaps, there lives a small child struggling to cope. Choreographer Joe Goode often shows us the world from that child’s point of view, creating dance-theater works that strip away the hard shell of experience to reveal his characters’ tender insides: their fears and vulnerabilities, the accidents that befall them, their hopes and disappointments.
“Hush,” the poignant and subtly polished work the Joe Goode Performance Group brought to Rutgers’ Victoria J. Mastrobuono Theater in New Brunswick on Wednesday, seems typical of his approach. The characters are ordinary young people, yet they seem on the edge of desperation. They must deal with the after-effects of trauma, with joblessness and sour relationships, not to mention the perennial search for identity. To help us understand their pain, Goode amplifies the sounds we hear so that the click of heels on the pavement and the scrape of a knife buttering toast acquire the power to test frayed nerves. The stage fairly sizzles.
Yet “Hush” does not assault the audience — quite the opposite. Goode tells his stories ever so gently, filling the gaps between confessional speeches with wistful songs that are almost lullabies, and with low-impact dancing that is ingeniously arranged but never heroic. Goode even de-fangs the amplification, reassuring us it’s just an illusion by placing the sound table upstage where Sudhu Tewari mixes the effects in plain sight. Recalling the golden years of radio, this device undercuts “Hush’s” atmosphere of melancholy with wit and cartoonish charm.
Moveable set pieces allow the dances to expand, while mapping the neighborhood. These young urbanites follow a well-trodden route, traveling back and forth between home — represented by a door-stoop or a breakfast table — and the local watering hole where they gather. They inhabit a space that, despite the warmth of friendship, can feel narrow and confining. Leaning against a storefront gate sprayed with graffiti, two of these cronies share a cigarette and some gossip. “Did you hear what happened to Penny?” Carlos asks. “Bummer!” Willy replies.
Later, Donny, the bartender, asks Penny directly, “Do you want to talk?” “No!” she responds emphatically. But we know Goode will pry the story out of her. “Hush” makes the argument for talk-therapy, and its mission is to help people find their voices. That goes not just for the victims of a violent crime, but also for innocents like Penny’s best friend, Burt, who is trying to navigate his way out of the closet in an environment where casual homophobia is taken for granted.
Goode belongs to a generation of gay men whose hard-earned motto became “Silence = Death.” While the stories in “Hush” are personal, it’s easy to suppose the choreographer’s message is also political. “Hush” addresses a society in which people are rendered mute, encouraged to be passive by an economic system that promotes itself through glib advertising while discouraging criticism and protest. Discretion is one thing, but wearing a gag is something else.
The choreographer also shows us, in his non-terrifying, dancey way, what happened to Penny. As she walks home one night, a team of men back up to her and surround her. As they manipulate Penny’s limp body, passing through a series of imaginative but never graphic tableaux, we hear this thoughtful woman analyze her rape. Sensitively portrayed by Damara Vita Ganley, she knows she’s not to blame, but the incident scars her. When she recalls it, her body begins to quake while in the background the earth rumbles and threatens to split.
Burt (Melecio Estrella) vows to protect Penny, despite his self-doubts: “I want to be a fierce mother lioness, but I’m a sissy boy,” he says plaintively. Willy has issues, too. Unemployed and directionless, this slacker played by the wiry Andrew Ward has an ambitious girlfriend (Liz Burritt) whose promotion at work threatens their relationship. An intimately tactile duet with Carlos (Felipe Barrueto-Cabello), relieves Burt of his anxieties. For Penny, however, the only solution is to unburden herself to Alexander Zendzian’s gruff but supportive Donny.
“Hush” tackles difficult material, but its outcome is encouraging. Despite their fragility, there’s never any question these young people have the strength to press on.
The Joe Goode Performance Group will perform “Hush” through Feb. 13. For tickets and information, visit masongross.rutgers.edu.