Fuse Theater Review: “Blinders” — Choppy Political Satire

Patrick Gabridge’s political satire presents some intriguing sci-fi-like concepts, but the play falls into too many narrative potholes.

Blinders by Patrick Gabridge. Directed by Korinne T. Richey. Staged by Flat Earth Theatre at the Arsenal Center for the Arts, Watertown, MA, through June 25.

Kimberly McClure in the Flat Earth production of "Blinders." Photo: Jake

Kimberly McClure in the Flat Earth Theatre production of “Blinders.” Photo: Jake Scaltreto.

By Jess Viator

Blinders, written nearly 20 years ago, is a scarily prescient satire of politics, particularly of television’s talent for brainwashing the masses. I applaud Flat Earth Theatre, both for choosing a script that is so savvily relevant to our current ideological climate and their courage in taking on such a tricky venture (satire, George S. Kaufman proclaimed, closes on Saturday night). Patrick Gabridge’s text presents some intriguing sci-fi-like concepts, and it comes up with some shocking moments, but ultimately the script is choppy. And the production is not strong enough to overcome the narrative’s pitfalls.

Karen Sayer (Kimberly McClure) is a reporter investigating a scientific breakthrough: two men, Chris (Matthew Arnold) and Alex (Justus Perry), are discovered to be genetically and spiritually identical — they even think the same thoughts. The world goes into awed enthusiasm over these apparent carbon copies, but Karen is confused. To her, they don’t look similar at all. And she tells them so. Suddenly, mankind is against her.

Now, here is the thing: the premise is great. Blinders adeptly introduces two devilish notions: that individualism is disposable and that for some ending free thought  means the path to a better future. The script then brings on an unidentified “they,” who start up a comprehensive campaign to test the blood of the public to find more doppelgängers and then take samples of their brains. It would be reasonable to assume that armies of people, cheerfully volunteering for lobotomies, would be the perfect scary scoop for a reporter. But no, Karen is obsessed with the fact that everyone but she believes that Chris and Alex look alike.

Karen encounters a series of over-the-top characters who amply prove the world’s blind devotion to Chris and Alex. They are supposed to be caricatures, but some of them felt like silly throwaways. I wonder if this part of the production would have been helped if there had been a larger acting ensemble,. The cast members struggled to make their wide array of characters distinctive. That said, Glen Moore and Robin Abrahams contributed some of the most memorable bits.

Karen loses her beloved job as a reporter because of her unpopular opinion. Still, she will not give up her one-woman crusade for the truth, so she takes it to the streets, handing out pamphlets and shouting into the void. For this act of rebellion, she is scorned by the public, chased by the police, and betrayed by her boyfriend. Eventually, she seeks solace in her parents—and they have her committed to a mental institution.

All of this happens very rapidly. Gabridge’s script is meant to go-go-go and director Korinne Ritchey is game for the acceleration. The first act, especially, is very fast paced; so much so that it damages Blinders‘ dramatic arc. There’s no gradual build here, just a barrage of plot points. Also, there are puzzling leaps in the story’s logic, as well as a general mismatch of actions and reactions. The result is narrative whiplash.

Everyone treats Karen as if she is crazy long before she acts even remotely crazy. Yes, this is disturbing in a kind of dystopic way. But the script leaves little room for her to ruminate on why these things are happening to her, and doesn’t allow her much self-reflection or moments of doubt. She just ineffectually doubles down, again and again. And then, alas, her smarmy salesman boyfriend talks at her for 10 minutes.

Kimberly McClure as Karen powers through this guff. She gamely gives her all with the very little she has to work with. (The character is an uninteresting cipher for the first half of the play.) Thankfully, the performer scores a powerful and thoughtful scene in the opening of the second act. It is late, but the production finally finds its footing, and McClure is able to shine.

Ritchey’s staging has its ups and downs as well. Some scenes were painstakingly timed and artistically choreographed (the delightful interlude in the bowling alley between Karen and the Mysterious Woman, played by Robin Abrahams, springs to mind, as well as the spot-on precision of Chris and Alex’s confrontation with their political opponent at the driving range). Other scenes, however, felt haphazard and static; Gabridge’s ideas about the goings-on in a mental institution are dated and uncomfortably clichéd. Karen’s mental breakdown is depicted via a cool bit of theatricality, but the business is entirely out of step with the rest of the production

However, Ritchey has carefully curated every scene with ‘twins’ Chris and Alex. Performers Arnold and Perry are physically and vocally synchronized throughout their scenes, and it is fascinating to watch their characters navigate being the same person — but not really the same person — while fully believing that they are the same person. The two actors just click, and they play off of each other seamlessly. Later, when the duo are split up, Chris is paired off with a different Alex. The discomfort, edging into panic, that Arnold displays is beautifully done.

One thing that may have been encumbering the staging is Debra Reich’s set design. The back wall is painted with the gray, wavy lines of a dying television set. Two towers of non-functioning TVs stand in the playing area, with two functioning screens perched on top. There is also some debris, lamps and such, that never become part of the action and, as far as I can tell, never amount to anything of metaphorical interest. Everything is in shades of black and white and gray. Thematically, this makes sense, but visually it is very blah. The purposeless television towers take up an enormous amount of valuable real estate on stage. Having seen several of Reich’s other set designs and found them impressive, I am surprised and disappointed that her set-up for Blinders is so illogical and dull. Similarly, the costumes were largely nondescript, and colorless. There was just too much gray all around.

The fake-on-purpose props, created by Jake Scaltreto, are clever and funny. These are Brechtian-inspired plywood pieces, cut into the shapes of various items, and painted with childish simplicity. Even the “crowd” is made up of painted wooden cutouts of people. Also, Mac Ritchey’s sound design was masterfully ominous and unsettling.

Parts of Flat Earth’s production of Blinders are well done examples of absurdist political satire. If you are into what is going on in today’s socio-political free-for-all, the production is worth taking in because of its chilling relevance. But, as drama, too many scenes come off as if they were thrown together — our politics may be a mess, but that is not an excuse for a mishmash in the theater.

Jess Viator is an emerging independent theater director, an occasional stage manager, and a lapsed playwright. She has a BA in theater performance, and recently completed a master’s degree in theatre studies from the University of Dundee in Scotland.

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