(Photo of Simon Laherty, Sarah Mainwaring and Scott Price by Tristram Kenton for The Guardian)
For about the first 20 minutes of The Shadow Whose Prey the Hunter Becomes, I was enjoying the uniqueness of the experience. By the end of the show’s 60-minute running time, I was struggling to stay awake. The problem, no doubt, was partly with me.
In The Shadow, we meet three people who identify themselves as Scott, Sarah, and Simon. Within a convention of holding a public meeting, they disagree about how to define themselves: Scott and Simon prefer the term “intellectually disabled”; Sarah insists she’s not disabled, she has a brain injury.
The producing company, Back to Back Theatre (from Australia), employs artists who are not neurotypical, so Scott, Sarah, and Simon are not merely characters. They are part of the team that created this show and they’re using their real names.
I enjoyed having these three run the meeting, partly because they slowed the world down. (Sarah speaks particularly slowly.) The show implicitly invites the audience to be with this trio on their terms, and I appreciated that.
I was also engaged by much of the content, especially in the early going. Our guides told us about the exploitation — sometimes virtual enslavement — of workers with intellectual disabilities. And they addressed the hierarchies of perceived intelligence. After all, our sense of superiority to animals allows us to systematically torture the species we don’t exempt as pets. But what will happen, The Shadow wonders, when AI outstrips human intelligence? It doesn’t really matter how you personally perceive the potential threat of AI, this rhetorical device works, in my opinion, because it allows so-called “normals” to consider what it might be like to live in a culture in which you’re considered subnormal and potentially disposable.
In some instances, I was also engaged by the form of The Shadow. Voice recognition software produces surtitles as the actors speak, making them much easier to understand. That’s used for humour: “I have autism,” Scott says. “Unfortunately for me, I also have a thick Australian accent.” But there’s pathos here as well: Sarah calls the surtitles “fucking patronizing.”
I enjoyed the individual qualities that Scott, Sarah, and Simon brought to the event. Scott teased latecomers and, in a number of places in the text, he’s particularly concerned about what he perceives as Sarah’s vulnerability to sexual abuse. Sarah won me with the anguish of her frustration, and Simon with his thoughtfulness.
But the show slipped away from me and I couldn’t get it back. I’m sure that’s partly because I was seriously exhausted going into it and hungrier than I should have been.
I also think it’s because, under Bruce Gladwin’s direction, the show is so texturally monotonous. The pace never changes. And there’s very little visual variety: at one point, Scott creates a podium to lecture from but, mostly, we’re left to watch three people sitting in a straight row of chairs and talking. Only in the curtain call do Scott, Sarah, and Simon dance a bit.
The emotional landscape of the show is tricky to talk about, but I experienced it as a long drive across the prairie: if you’re paying very close attention to the text, rather than the tone of the delivery, there are some changes in elevation, but continuing to register them would have required more concentration than I could muster. There’s a score, which is offered, it seems, as a guide to emotional tone. At first, I found this music lovely in its spaciousness, but, when it built to a climax later in the evening, I found it difficult to align that musical intensity with the minimal drama of the onstage action: Sarah is knocking over Scott’s podium. I suspect that action didn’t resonate with me because the conflicts between the characters are primarily presented as abstract arguments rather than being grounded in more immediately recognizable situations and relationships.
So, in fairness to the show, I was unable to meet it as fully as I would have liked to. In fairness to me, I think The Shadowcould have done a better job of drawing me in both theatrically and dramaturgically.
THE SHADOW WHOSE PREY THE HUNTER BECOMES Authored by Michael Chan, Mark Deans, Bruce Gladwin, Simon Laherty, Sarah Mainwaring, Scott Price, and Sonia Teuben. Directed by Bruce Gladwin. Produced by Back to Back Theatre. Presented with Neworld Theater and The Cultch as part of the PuSh Festival. On Friday, February 2. At the York Theatre until February 3 (tickets for the live shows) and available online until February 4 (streaming tickets).
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