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In ‘Shadow’ at ArtsEmerson, revelations from a struggle to be understood

Simon Laherty in "The Shadow Whose Prey the Hunter Becomes."
Simon Laherty in "The Shadow Whose Prey the Hunter Becomes."Zan Wimberley

It’s very likely that you’ve never before had a theatrical experience quite like “The Shadow Whose Prey the Hunter Becomes.’’ I certainly hadn’t.

Spare in structure and presentation but vast in scope and implication, “Shadow’’ features a quartet of actors with intellectual disabilities, all of whom collaborated in the making of the 65-minute piece.

If you have any preconceived notions about the expressive capacities of “neurodivergent’’ people, “Shadow’’ will explode them. If you have fixed ideas about what constitutes theater, “Shadow’’ will make those disappear as well.

Into its one remarkable hour “Shadow’’ manages to pack more insight, wisdom, emotional resonance, and steadily accumulating power than many stage productions achieve in three times that duration. Before the show is over, the cast has ventured into revelatory ruminations on the implications of artificial intelligence while suggesting that we just might regret our unconditional surrender to technology (embodied in “Shadow’’ by a somewhat menacing Siri).

Directed by Bruce Gladwin, who is also among its creators, this production by the Australia-based Back to Back Theatre has been brought to the Paramount Center by ArtsEmerson for a too-brief four-day run that ends Sunday.


The premise of “Shadow’’ is that four people who have a range of neurological conditions — played by Scott Price (wearing a T-shirt that reads “Autism Pride’’), Sarah Mainwaring, Michael Chan, and Simon Laherty, all of whose characters share their first names — are addressing a community meeting in Australia about the challenges facing people with disabilities.

But they take a few unpredictable detours, procedural and personal. Scott, who has hitherto seemed the picture of confidence, confesses his anxiety about public speaking: “Children laugh when I talk. What if I get heckled?’’ Simon, who initially seems like the shy one in the group, finds his voice in firm objections to being introduced as disabled: “I don’t think it describes me.’’


Like anyone else, offstage or on, the characters in “Shadow’’ want to be seen, heard, and understood. As their conversation ranges across such topics as otherness, self-knowledge, and the need for acceptance, their spoken words are also projected via supertitles. The set consists of a few chairs and a large white cube that serves as an outlet for their feelings of frustration but also, when they join forces to move it across the stage of the Jackie Liebergott Black Box, an emblem of teamwork and solidarity that is quietly moving.

Each cast member possesses a distinctive personality, and “Shadow’’ mines their interactions for a blend of humor, conflict, and warmth. Scott is solicitous in a big-brother way of Sarah, which she seems to view with a combination of appreciation and amusement.

In a far more somber vein, they remind the audience of the countless instances of abuse, discrimination, exploitation, and flat-out dehumanization that have been suffered by disabled people — and they cite examples from the recent past so we don’t delude ourselves that such episodes belong only to history. Some cast members speak movingly about battling feelings of shame. “The shame is there and it’s hard to say why,’’ Scott says.

Yet a palpable pride is there, too, and it’s well-earned. “Shadow’’ leaves its audience with something to ponder: As artificial intelligence continues its seemingly unstoppable forward march, might not all of us one day be considered to have an intellectual disability?


“You will struggle to be understood,’’ warns Simon. “Others will want to highlight your limits.’’ If that day arrives, it’ll be worth remembering “Shadow’s’’ inspiring lessons in how to combat those limits.


By Michael Chan, Mark Deans, Bruce Gladwin, Simon Laherty, Sarah Mainwaring, Scott Price, and Sonia Teuben. Directed by Bruce Gladwin. Production by Back to Back Theatre. Presented by ArtsEmerson. At Jackie Liebergott Black Box, Paramount Center, Boston, through Jan. 26. Tickets $50, 617-824-8400, www.artsemerson.org

Don Aucoin can be reached at donald.aucoin@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeAucoin.