By Bill Marx
The Shadow Whose Prey the Hunter Becomes suggests some marvelous possibilities.
The Shadow Whose Prey the Hunter Becomes, from Back to Back Theatre. Creative Development Artists: Bruce Gladwin, Mark Deans, Sarah Mainwaring, Scott Price, Simon Laherty, Sonia Teuben & Victoria Marshall. Directed by Gladwin. Presented by Arts Emerson at the Emerson Paramount Center in the Jackie Liebergott Black Box 559 Washington Street, Boston, MA, through January 26.
This touring production of the venerable Australian company Back to Back Theatre features four performers with some degree of intellectual disability, and it comes with a few breathless, run-don’t-walk blurbs (“an extraordinary play” from the New York Times). And there is tantalizing promise in a script that seeks to examine our routine assumptions about neurological normality — just what are “normal” habits of thinking and behaving? Aren’t all of our tics exceptional? Should there be any agreed-upon notions of higher and lower intellectual capacity — especially when those categorized on the bottom of the scale are routinely abused, stigmatized, and forgotten?
All good questions, but this production is too earnest, too eager to tell us what we ready know. Even the intriguing dystopian insinuation that artificial intelligence (represented here by an amiably authoritarian Siri) will shove all of us into mental margins lacks sufficient chill. Ironically, the most theatrically striking element of the script turns out to be its great title.
The setup is minimal. The performers (Michael Chan, Simon Laherty, Sarah Mainwaring, and Scott Price) bicker as they gather on an empty stage (aside from some chairs) for a meeting. Apparently, they have come to speak to us. Who is going to do the introduction? And what information will it include? A strip of tape is placed on the floor between the actors and audience. Overhead sits a large monitor that transcribes the performers’ dialogue — an interesting point is made about the need to translate both speech difficulties and a thick Australian accent into Siri-ian English. Most of the staging is accompanied by a mildly jazzy score that spoons out an easy-listening sedative.
Scott Price, who is autistic, is the impatient dominate voice among the quartet — he insists (at great length) that other voices be heard. At times Sarah, Michael, and Simon refuse to play along and give him some welcome back talk. But there is no real dramatic tension among the quartet — Michael assures us, alas, that everyone will be well-behaved. And the reason for the confab remains unclear for a good part of the play. We need to be made to understand … something. At one point Scott ascends a sort of pulpit — a big white block — and informs us from on high (with some kibitzing from the others) about the long history of the exploitation of intellectually disabled people. Mention of Ireland’s Magdalene Laundries leads to an attack on a toy manufacturer (Hasbro) who used forced labor to assemble its board games, which kicks off a reading of a list of the company’s games: Monopoly, Operation, Twister, etc. Simon perks up to point out the games he has played. This meandering is representative of the script — a hot-button topic is mentioned, then veered away from through humor or the arrival of a distraction, such as trying to figure out whether Kevin Spacey was accused of coming on to an adolescent male or female. No doubt the zigging and zagging reflects the performers’ distinctive way of looking at themselves and others — and the deadpan exchanges have their satisfactions. But, for me, the salient point is made most succinctly via a single Beckettesque koan. Simon is asked whether he has any self-knowledge. He responds — no knowledge.
We finally end up with the threat of A.I. and the warning that there will be a new pecking order. But we learn little about what it is like to exist in today’s demeaning pecking order or about the performers’ back stories and inner struggles. Things end where they began: Scott gives Sarah some well-meaning advice about dealing with sexual contact and predators. He warns her about being menaced by a pedophile; she has to remind him that she is a 36-year-old woman.
The script’s documentary premise, that the performers have come to a public meeting to warn the audience, is far too limiting, dramatically static. Given the nimbleness of the actors, particularly the skillful timing of Sarah Mainwaring and Scott Price, some of the show’s repetitiveness could have been cut in order to explore richer territory. It is exciting to have stage productions acted and created by intellectually and physically disabled people (the performers helped generate the script with other members of the company). Back to Back Theatre’s The Shadow Whose Prey the Hunter Becomes suggests some of the marvelous possibilities.
Bill Marx is the editor-in-chief of The Arts Fuse. For over three decades, he has written about arts and culture for print, broadcast, and online. He has regularly reviewed theater for National Public Radio Station WBUR and The Boston Globe. He created and edited WBUR Online Arts, a cultural webzine that in 2004 won an Online Journalism Award for Specialty Journalism. In 2007 he created The Arts Fuse, an online magazine dedicated to covering arts and culture in Boston and throughout New England.