Metro Weekly

“Blindness” is a gripping adventure of sight and sound

The Shakespeare Theatre marks a welcome return to live theater with a bold exploration of a strange new world.

Blindness -- Photo: Helen Maybanks
Blindness — Photo: Helen Maybanks

How appropriate that entering the theater to experience Blindness should feel like onboarding for a voyage to outer space. The Shakespeare Theatre’s first in-person presentation in over a year — and this critic’s first trip in 14 months to the interior of any theater — represents both a welcome return to the familiar, and in several senses, a bold exploration of a strange new world.

Under any circumstances, the international hit sound and light installation, produced by London’s Donmar Warehouse, would promise a thrilling and disorienting ride. But especially now, the senses-warping performance, adapted by Simon Stephens (The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time) from the novel by Nobel Prize-winner José Saramago, is as immersive in the fantasy it depicts as it is harrowingly real in its portrayal of the division and chaos that might accompany a global viral pandemic.

In Saramago’s story, also adapted into a 2008 film starring Julianne Moore, the virus in question causes blindness, which the show induces in the audience by turning out the lights.

Capped at 40 attendees per show, the masked audience arrives having prepped in advance with a safety video, before being led one party at a time to their seats, arranged in socially distant pairs on the voluminous Sidney Harman Hall stage.

Bare stage lights are supplemented by brilliantly colored illuminated rods installed overhead. Speakers, also overhead, work in perfect concert with the headphones each attendee dons at their seat.

Enveloped at times in utter darkness, our reliance on sound becomes near total. Beautifully layered audio features actress Juliet Stevenson, playing several different characters, narrating and guiding us through the gradual — then all too sudden — breakdown of a society done in by distrust. Governments and institutions falter, while some individuals, including the wife of an ophthalmologist, do their best to lead.

Creating character and dimension from elements unseen, Walter Meierjohann’s direction builds tension palpably, aided by wondrous binaural sound mixing. Audio alone evokes the violence of gunshots, or the heat and crackle of a fire roaring around us.

In those extended moments of complete blindness, sound and memory see us through — along with trust, for the experience and in our fellow patrons, appreciating that we’re all on this ride together.

Blindness runs through May 23 at Sidney Harman Hall, 610 F St. NW. Tickets are $49, except weekend and Wednesday matinees, which are $44. Call 202-547-1122, or visit www.shakespearetheatre.org/events/blindness-20-21.

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