‘Blindness’ in darkness at Shakespeare is a brilliant beacon of theater

A transformative sound-and-light installation that speaks to our age.

On this Kentucky Derby weekend, wondering what theatrical “horse” will nose ahead and augur well for a new world of theater when we can emerge from the pandemic, I’m placing my bet on Blindness at Shakespeare Theatre Company. Artistic Director Simon Godwin called it “a gentle step back into in-person events.” I call it a bold step for this company that made its mark over the years with grand production values. Like the little horse that won the Derby, this immersive work reminds us that, at its core, theater is about heart and the will to risk it all and run the course.

We approach the seating area down a narrow hallway, led by an usher past window displays of lavish wigs and hats of productions past. This parade of ghosts leads us to be seated, safely distanced, onto the stage. We are “only” 40 in what feels like a small black box instead of the Sidney Harmon Hall’s capacity of 700, but the fact we are on the actual stage also assigns us an importance. We are players now, characters in the space where the action takes place, portraying roles of both participants and witnesses. Isn’t this what theater was always meant to be?

From the Donmar Warehouse 2020 production of ‘Blindness.’ Photo by Helen Maybanks.

“If you can see, look. If you can look, observe.” This writing plastered on the wall is all that adorns the space along with a geometric pattern of neon tubes that hang like delicate crystals above us. The tubes serve as the lighting, slowly changing color and gently dimming and brightening as we prepare for the event. Are we slowly losing our sight?

Blindness is a parable for our time. Portuguese writer José Saramago, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1998, wrote the dark novel upon which Blindness is based about a pandemic of “white blindness” — in large part to address the horrors of a society that crumbles under totalitarianism, where everyone is blind to the catastrophe.

The journey of theater, like the journey in the novel, should remind us, now more than ever, just how hard it is to stay the course and see it through. Saramago’s work is a masterpiece, but his writing forced him into exile. Director Walter Meierjohann tried unsuccessively to mount a production three times, working in three different countries where he saw parallels of the plague narrative to the rise of extreme nationalism in the different situations and societies he encountered. But what he had envisioned was operatic in scale. (One stage direction reads “Enter 100 people.”)

Suddenly the world was plunged into a real pandemic. It required totally re-envisioning the scale. The Donmar Warehouse theatre in London gave him the opportunity. Meierjohann and the company commissioned the inventive Olivier- and Tony-winning writer Simon Stephens (of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time fame) to meet the challenge. It was a tall order to make stageworthy a work about a pandemic in a pandemic with all the “imagination, parable, compassion, and irony” of the original. (The Donmar production is now a landmark must-see in many cities around the world.)

Experiencing this sound-and-light installation shows us who and where we are. When the space is suddenly plunged into total darkness, we all feel the totality of isolation of this past year. Every audience member wears binaural earphones, which accentuate the lonely space-between of our 40 fragile selves.

From the Donmar Warehouse 2020 production of ‘Blindness.’ Photo by Helen Maybanks.

Suddenly a voice comes to speak to me as if over my shoulder, breathing in my left ear. It is the voice of brilliant British actress Juliet Stephenson, who through the course of 70-plus minutes creates an auditory and emotional journey — the most intimate, disturbing, and revelatory I may have ever known in the theater. I find myself thinking: This is most extraordinary that Juliet Stephenson is here to comfort me, weep with me, and urge me to keep going.

Brilliantly, Blindness is a beacon for what theater can now mean in the digital age: world theater for an audience of one.

The technical creative team has done extraordinary work. Sound Designers Ben and Max Ringham have palpably transformed the dark space, peopling it through in-the-round sound with a community in lockdown. Darkness makes every participant observe and confront his or her terror. Sound is the only thing left to connect us.

Lighting Designer Jessica Hung Han Yun specializes in dance and installations of inter-disciplinary works. Her elegant solution to a world primarily about darkness symbolizes the fragility of light as both sight and hope.

Photo from The Donmar Warehouse’s 2020 production of ‘Blindness’ by Helen Maybanks.

May I put in a word at the last for the unsung stage manager? Joseph Smelser has manned his post at Shakespeare Theatre Company for years, navigating huge productions, artistic egos, complex teams of assistants who answer to assistant managers and making sure all runs smoothly. Last night, he stood alone, turning off and on the exit lights and disappearing into his makeshift “booth.” There will still be people like him to make sure the theater doesn’t languish in forever darkness. He and experiences like this are our hope.

So who are the people out there saying that when theater finally comes back everyone will want something jolly and familiar, hoping for and placing bets on “an easy comedy”? Don’t we really yearn for something that is relevant and transformative — a glimmer of light (or sound) that emerges from the darkness? And yes, one that will speak not just to a moment but to an age?

Blindness crosses the finish line ahead and shows us the way.

Running time: 75 minutes

EXTENDED: Blindness runs through July 3, 2021, with viewing times at 7 p.m. Tuesday to Friday, and at 11 a.m., 3 p.m., and 7 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays; there are also showings on Wednesdays at noon. Tickets are $49, except weekend and Wednesday matinees, which are $44; all tickets are general admission. Tickets for Blindness are available for purchase now online. All artists, dates, and titles are subject to change.

ENHANCED SAFETY PROCEDURES
Patrons will be seated onstage at Sidney Harman Hall in a socially distanced manner and will never be seated next to someone outside their own party. A limited number of single tickets are available for purchase by calling the Box Office, (202) 547-1122. All patrons and staff will wear masks at all times while in the building, and must stay home if they are feeling ill or experiencing any symptoms of illness. To stay within the guidelines of D.C.’s ReOpenDC plan, the seating capacity is limited to 40 guests and there will never be more than 50 people in the building. Complete information about STC’s Safety Guidelines is available here.

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Susan Galbraith received a BA in English and Drama from Tufts University, graduating summa cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa. Settling in Minneapolis for a time, she earned an MFA from the University of Minnesota, founded a theatre company, Performers Ensemble, and also collaborated with Prince on writing songs and the first draft of Purple Rain. Susan moved to Boston where she was part of Boston Shakespeare Company’s acting company under Peter Sellars. Since 1991, she has made D.C. her home where she has enjoyed the opportunity to write plays, direct, act, and produce. She helped co-found Alliance for New Music-Theatre and collaborated on original works across disciplines, styles, and cultural expressions of music-theatre. For the Alliance, Susan co-wrote and directed Sandaya: Burmese Lessons and has collaborated with the Czech Embassy on several works inspired by great Czech writers, including Vanek Unleased and an adaptation of Kafka’s Metamorphosis. She has collaborated with composer Maurice Saylor on adapting Karel Capek's R.U.R. (Rossum's Universal Robots) as a retro-futuristic cabaret musical, and, with composers Dawn Avery and Milad Yousofi and co-writer Yalda Baktash Women has developed Troy/Voices from Afghanistan, a music-theatre work featuring the stories of Afghan women and American female veterans. She is grateful to Lorraine Treanor and the opportunity of DCTheatreScene to jump into the privileged audience seat from time to time to learn from and be inspired by her colleagues making theatre and opera in the Greater Washington area.

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