Fringe review: Shadowlands

Shadowlands, by and starring Savanna Harvey. Photo by Savanna Harvey.

By Liz Nicholls,

Shadowlands (Stage 5, King Edward Elementary School)

This odd, enigmatic, ambitious little play by and starring Edmonton artist Savanna Harvey takes us behind the scenes (so to speak) in Life: life at the cellular level, life before birth and possibly after death.

We’re in the dark lab of existence where “particles are clumping and unclumping and re-clumping,” as the least abstract, most accessible bit of an elusive introduction has it. Well, the puckish playwright has named her company Pretentious Productions.

Anyhow, scientific research is underway. The most striking visual image in a piece that is, at its most successful, a series of visual images, is a shadowy figure in a light-up lab coat, with lights glinting off a grid.

Shadowlands is a series of truncated scenes distinguished by the particular hand-held lighting source — flashlight, emergency light, glow globe, LED fairy lights — that reveals it. A bell rings; the stage returns to blackness before the next light-up scene happens.

The scenes loop, in serial fashion. In one recurring scene, which resumes from time to time, in roughly the place it left off, the play returns to a blinking red emergency light and a voice ordering evacuation. In another loop, a hyperactive character who turns out to be lab mouse is skittering around a cage on the prowl for pellets.

The spoken text is a bit of a buzz-kill, flat and prosaic. But the images do resonate. And the structure of Harvey’s play, the unfolding of a mystery, is intriguing. Characters who seem to have no connection are gradually linked into a story — or perhaps more accurately, a Rubik’s Cluster of themes. The dots get connected into a portrait of generations and someone lost. 

If cells can divide and multiply indefinitely, endings are arbitrary. The link between mothers and daughters who become mothers continues into infinity. OK, I have to admit that when the cancer researcher cries “I solved it!” I wasn’t entirely sure what “it” was. The mystery of cellular division? A genetic cure for cancer? But I was moved to think about the puzzle.  

Repetition is required, of course, in serial constructions, like this one. Gradually, though, Shadowlands seems to get noticeably slower (I’m looking at you, lab mouse) instead of accelerating. The repetitions seem more obvious. The blackouts seems longer.

And this seems counter-intuitive in a play where time, as we’re reminded, is of the essence.  As seen at the Winnipeg Fringe.

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