The Spectator & the Blind Man: Stories of Seeing & Not-Seeing
nytheatre.com review by Ed Malin
February 24, 2013
Publicity artwork for The Spectator & the Blind Man
The characters in this show are all very sexy for the way they helped give "light" to the blind during and after the Age of Enlightenment.
It starts with the host of the show, writer-director-costumer designer Dr. ML Godin, an obviously big-hearted scholar who is determined to bring this history to the people through an accessible "steam punk aesthetic". Ms. Godin introduces six monologists who, in a refreshingly real, non-period piece style which I find myself comparing to Schnitzler's "La Ronde", work off each other to document the years 1771-1829.
The first person to devise books for the blind was Valentin Haüy (Gregory Levine). This charmingly jaded personality relates his frustration with ignorant crowds of seeing people at a performance by blind musicians which he attended in Paris. One of these earnest performers (Bill Chambers) describes the difficult living and working conditions for him and his cohorts and suggests that the masses wouldn't know art if it hit them.
Next, the blind Viennese pianist Maria Theresa von Paradis (Leslie Goshko), a pupil of Salieri, performs in Paris in 1784. She had been treated by the celebrated Dr. Mesmer, recovered sight for long enough to joke about how disappointing people look when you can see them, and resumed her career. Then Maria Theresa meets Valentin Haüy and helps him with funding for a school for the blind. Who could fund that noble project? Another Austrian in France: the infamous Marie Antoinette (Cathryn Lynne).
Here, Dr. Godin brilliantly shows that in her day Marie Antoinette was meanly caricatured as a sexually-charged interloper, the most printable caption about her punning on the French words for "Austria" and "Ostrich". The lady herself notes that her husband disdained her for many years so she spent a little too much money on redecorating. What she did do, towards the end, was fund schools for the blind.
The next innovator was French Revolution-era Captain Charles Barbier (Dan Rose), who saw the need for a writing system which military commanders could read in the dark. This raised-dot system inspired the young, blind student Louis Braille (Bryan Harris). Braille's developments were seen as threatening and succeeded through tactics which you will see more about in the show, and in Dr. Godin's book The Spectator and the Blind Man.
I can't say enough good things about this show. It is educational, entertaining, and motivational. The lovely, down-to-earth performances are complemented by projections courtesy of Nellie King Solomon, Todd Jackson, Caroline Kasnakian, and David Lowe, with images curated by art historian Nicole Simpson.