Of course, of course, of course, the first play I see again after being away from theater for an entire year due to a worldwide pandemic would be about… a worldwide pandemic.
Of course it is.
However, and it’s a big, however, unlike the constant bubbling terror we all lived for the last year and the sickness and death, there is always proof that things could have been worse, that things can still be worse, and while to never downplay the severity of what had happened, there is also joy in being reminded in our health and safety that we can all experience.
This is how I felt while watching (listening to?) Blindness, an immersive audio experience currently playing in New York that completely blew me away.
Here’s what the Blindness team says about the show:
Blindness, the acclaimed Donmar Warehouse production of Nobel Prize-winner Jose Saramago’s dystopian novel by Tony Award®-winning playwright Simon Stephens, is a socially distanced theatrical event. Through spell-binding storytelling narrated by Juliet Stevenson and state of the art design it unveils the gripping story of a world changed forever, reminding us that from the darkness, we will all emerge stronger.
As the lights change at a major crossroads in a city in the heart of Europe, a car grinds to a halt. Suddenly, without warning or cause, its driver goes blind. Within hours, it is clear that this blindness is like no other—it is an infectious epidemic, spreading like wildfire. The government tries to quarantine the contagion by herding the newly blind people into an empty asylum, but their attempts are futile. The city is in panic.
Blindness proves to be an exceptional opportunity for guests to come together and witness its urgent and timely message. Just as it was presented in London, attendees in New York will hear the narrative unfolding around them through headphone technology while surrounded by immersive lighting and atmospheric design.
Together—and safely—they will experience the importance of community in our present moment, and be reminded of the hopeful end that lies ahead.
If the title and the plot sound somewhat familiar, it’s because there was a Julianne Moore movie based around the same story about 10 plus years ago.
However, where that movie faltered (meh by most accounts), this show embraced the story, the format, the narrative in a way that brought you deeper into the experience than maybe you even wanted to go, and it was all the better for it.
Before the show begins, you’re lead into a dark room glowing by hanging neon lights on the ceiling. You’re placed on a chair of one or two, depending on if you came with a person you trust and bought your tickets together, and your section was at least six feet away from all other people, creating an excellent bubble to hide in. (These gaps would also become important for the show later on).
As you sit, you’re instructed to put on your seriously comfortable headphones and now I kind of want a pair of my own since they were great. After a quick testing period to make sure they’re working, the lights went down and the show began…
Blindness is told entirely through the audio you hear and the lighting that happens above and around you. It’s like the most wild podcast you’ve ever had the chance to hear. The whole thing is jarring, exciting, terrifying, and elating, rapidly changing from one to another until your heart feels like it can’t take it anymore, and then you learn you can actually take a little more.
If that sounds intense, then know this: it is and it’s so good.
WHAT DID YOU THINK?
Not surprisingly, a lot of Blindness takes place in pitch black, so all you could do was listen to the story.
Because I’m a horror movie junkie, I kept waiting for the lights to turn on and there to be something terrifying standing in front of me. But no, none of that, as mentioned, the show is done entirely through what you hear in your headphones and the lighting cues that go with it.
However, it’s not like it wasn’t terrifying. There were moments had my heart beating and my hand gripping my wife, waiting to hear what comes next. The story switched between omnipresent narration and single-character perspective as you too, suddenly and without warning, go blind — and how that affects the whole world.
The audio is incredible. You hear every sound, every movement, every scream whether you want to or not. The entire show is narrated by classic actress Juliet Stevenson and her calm and her manic energy and her gripping terror are unavoidable. You need someone who can hit that emotional range in an hour-plus show and it could not be better cast.
I was tense, beautifully tense, throughout the entire run, right up to a moment at the end of the show that I will not reveal but was beautiful catharsis, perfectly done, the only way to end a production like this. I didn’t know I needed it until it was happening and when it did, I was so grateful I was there to experience it.
WAS IT PANDEMIC PROOF?
Oh yes. Not only did the test temperature as you came in, but everyone had to wear a mask the entire time and, as previously mentioned, you were six feet away from anyone not in your pod. I never felt unsafe and, although it’s unreasonable for the future, I kind of wish all theater forever was done this way.
I wasn’t sure I was ready for live theater again after the last year and I’m still probably not… at least for any show that isn’t Blindness. This is the perfect welcome back to reality through the lens of immersive fiction and a reminder that no matter what happens, we’re all in this together.
It’s a lesson, honestly, we all still probably need to learn and it’s one that’s taught perfectly in this show.
Blindness is playing at now through July 25th at the Daryl Roth Theatre, 101 E 15th St. Learn more and buy tickets here.