nytheatre.com review by Maggie Cino
March 12, 2005
This extraordinary experience starts with a letter. This piece of paper tells you that your tickets to the Vortex Theater Company’s production of Maurice Maeterlinck’s The Blind are confirmed. It also tells you that the production will be followed by a vegetarian meal, and that transportation is available to Chelsea Piers from the corner of 23rd and 7th as well as the corner of 23rd and 8th. Everyone rides over in a comfortable, understated black SUV. A crowd of strangers grows, some old friends chatting nonstop, some alone and awkward. And so themes of isolation and connection are introduced.
The venue is the hull of the Frying Pan, a recovered sunken lightship. Lightships were stationed in water difficult to navigate but too far from land for a lighthouse, guideposts in impossible weather. The ship is fully habitable but also rusted and ancient. Warning to the thin of blood: it is also freezing cold. There is a heater, but it is so noisy they turn it off during the production. But the cold and quiet are very much part of the world of the play.
The Blind was originally written for 12 actors. There are only three in Bathsheba Doran’s adaptation and that intimacy makes the characters’ isolation more acute. Three blind people have been taken from their institution, and they lose each other in the woods on a desolate island. They find each other again and decide to stay put until their caretaker arrives. A hanging dummy ominously looms over them as they wait. Straining, waiting, listening, hysteria, sensory deprivation, and disorientation confront these characters as they contend with the agony of eternal waiting, not knowing if they will be saved or killed.
A few individual moments especially haunt. There are a few unseen characters that float around the edges of this little world, and the one it is impossible to forget is the baby of a deaf madwoman. As ominous footsteps approach, the baby is found and the characters try to discover if it is blind. As the baby turns to the footsteps, the actor cries, “He sees! He sees!” in a vibrant, unforgettable moment. In another, one character finds flowers, real flowers growing under the seats. For the character, a bit of home is brought into this unknown void, and for the audience the stubbornness of the natural world creeps into this manmade ruin.
Sense, or lack thereof, is the main consideration in all Sabrina Peric’s design elements. The venue remains dim throughout the production, and everything is white. Their clothes are white. The actors are all wearing white contact lenses that prevent them from seeing and their blank stares are terrifying. The hull is very quiet, and Joel Bravo’s gentle soundscape merges with the faraway sounds of the real world. But the play is full of sudden noises, from the first unexpected yell. The characters let out wild, nervous, hysterical laughter, drop things suddenly, communicate sonically what they cannot communicate visually.
But the sensory experience doesn’t stop with the show. The meal is gorgeous and worth the ticket price on its own. Holly Shaffer gleefully explained her design—the meal is texturally and aromatically complex but quite bland to look at, so sight is unnecessary and even unhelpful during the meal. The heady soup is garlic and has a poached egg, blind and white, in it. For the main course, there are three kinds of risotto, dished out one kind to every third person so you have to share your meal with the people sitting around you (extra spoons are provided for those concerned about germs). Each risotto comes with a folded piece of paper, so if you want to discover what you're eating you can, or you can keep it unknown and go with smell and taste alone. Dessert is white-wine-poached pear with star anise and a dollop of rose-water honeyed Greek yogurt. To drink, there is texturally complex champagne.
The whole evening is orchestrated by Kristjan Thorgeirsson, who directed the play and acts as the maitre d' and master of ceremonies. He is available throughout the meal for questions, which is how I learned that the play will go up in another venue later without the meal, and about the group’s ongoing interest in dinner theater—how to create an event that will get people to really interact and share an experience. And the one they provide is absolutely unforgettable. As each sense is challenged in a brand new way, what lingers is that the premise for this experience is a play in which these simple pleasures are unattainable.