How often have you dreamt about your triumphant return to the audience of a live theater production? You'd finally be surrounded by fellow New Yorkers while your imagination runs wild thanks to outstanding performances by actual actors on actual stages, their voices reverberating through a theater drenched in historical meaning. The uplifting music, words and poetry that we’ve all deeply missed while holed up at home trying to combat a virus that has forced us all to self-isolate would likely tickle all your senses.
And, yet, one of the very first productions to open in New York since COVID-19 shuttered theaters over a year ago is anything but what we’ve just described. Blindness—now playing at the Daryl Roth Theater in Union Square—is an immersive audio adaptation of the eponymous dystopian novel by José Saramago, which was also turned into a 2008 movie starring Julianne Moore and Mark Ruffalo.
There is no stage and there are no actors in the 70-minute show. Each audience member—seated in pods of two—is handed a pair of sanitized headphones upon entry, through which they get to listen to a captivating albeit petrifying story narrated by British actress Juliet Stevenson.
Blindness, which first premiered in London last summer, does a lot of things right, starting with the production. Given the absence of actors, the producers don't need to follow some of guidelines that have kept Broadway shows from premiering. Safety measures are still in place, though: each duo of ticket holders stands apart from each other while waiting to enter the space, temperature checks are performed at the door, masks are required throughout the entire stay.
Perhaps most fascinating and impressive is the audio involved. At times, it feels like the narrator is whispering into our ears directly, standing alongside us although we’re unable to see her given the total darkness that the space is submerged in throughout the majority of the show.
Speaking of darkness: there are a slew of fluorescent lights peppered throughout the space which are turned on and off at key points in the show—a phenomenal construct that ends up becoming the only thing to actually “watch” during the experience.
Enthralling and vivid, Stevenson’s voice seems to be created for the medium as she tells the story of a man that inexplicably goes blind and kicks off a blindness pandemic that forces an unnamed city—and, eventually, an unnamed country and the world as a whole—to go into quarantine, where the very worst ends up happening, from life-threatening arguments over food to rape and murder. The story is recounted by the wife of an ophthalmologist who doesn’t actually lose her vision (we never understand why), who manages to guide a group of the afflicted through quarantine and, eventually, to an escape.
The plot is the show’s major shortfall alongside its length (a 45-minute rendition of the audio performance might have packed a better punch). To put it simply: the story hits a little too close to home. Still reeling from the devastating effects of a pandemic that has yet to entirely disappear, audience members can’t easily immerse themselves in a story that quite literally functions as the very worst-case scenario of the situation we’re already in, practically a Black Mirror episode of the life we’ve been living for a year. The result? Panic and sadness upon exiting the theater directly onto Park Avenue.
Although it’s certainly not too soon to return to a theater as announcements about live, in-person productions seem to be making the rounds daily, it might be a bit too soon to watch a show about a pandemic that destroys humanity as we know it—no matter how exciting it is to do so without a Zoom window open and from somewhere different than the comfort of our couch.
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