King Of Shadows @ Theater for the New City, New York

cast list
Satya Bhabha
Kat Foster
Sarah Lord
Richard Short

directed by
Connie Grappo
King of Shadows, the latest from up-and-coming playwright Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa is one of a strange and unusual breed of plays. Neither out-and-out success nor flat-out failure, it manages to simultaneously confound and entertain, straddling a fine line between originality and obtuseness that makes for a thoroughly interesting, if ultimately disappointing, theatergoing experience.

The premise of the four-character play is bizarre. Subsidized by the California Shakespeare Theatre and including a twist involving elements of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the work was inspired by the playwright’s experiences mentoring homeless LGBT youth in the San Francisco metro area. The finished product is meant to give voice to this disenfranchised community, though its adherence to this mission is spotty.

Jessica is a grad student writing a thesis on homeless LGBT youth in San Francisco. She hangs flyers around town encouraging homeless youth to talk to her for her dissertation. One day she meets with a young man named Nihar, a talented artist whom she soon feels compelled to help, allowing him to stay with her for two nights at her home with her younger sister Sarah and her policeman boyfriend Eric against her better judgment.

So far the plot is fairly simple, but the introduction of a strange occult subplot involving alternate worlds and possible mind-reading soon stretches an audience’s suspension of disbelief to the breaking point. Nihar feels he can travel between worlds and tells Jessica that he’s recently escaped from an alternate world where a mysterious figure called the King of Shadows rules with an iron fist, possibly snatching local youths off the streets.

For a play straying from the boundaries of realism, this one finds itself with an uneasy footing in the realm of the supernatural. We’re meant to wonder whether Nihar devises these fanciful stories as a form of projection to escape his unstable lifestyle or whether, within the world of the play, his recollections carry any tangible weight, but the plot ultimately becomes too far-fetched to allow for serious consideration.

Though director Connie Grappo can be credited with keeping the action quickly paced, Aguirre-Sacasa’s script allows the story, which is essentially framed by Jessica’s central perspective, to stray too often in focus. The younger characters grab attention away from her storyline at key moments. Furthermore, amateurish direct-address narration from each of the four characters distracts during otherwise dynamic scenes with its obvious commentary.

As regards the cast, Kat Foster, who plays Jessica, and Richard Short, who plays her boyfriend Eric, acquit themselves admirably, but they’re upstaged by their younger costars. Satya Bhabha imbues his character with an unusual dignity, speaking his lines with a wonderment befitting his status as a curious, imaginative scamp. His Nihar is a bundle of nerves from the moment he meets Jessica, frantically rubbing his arms as if attempting to claw himself out of his own skin. And as Jessica’s sister Sarah, Sarah Lord presents perhaps the most compelling of the performances on display here. Hers is a winning comic turn, one with a sense of the importance of effective deadpan timing. I predict she’ll soon be an actress to watch out for.

The cast is aided by versatile, simple scenic design by Wilson Chin, whose streetwise set featuring flyer-papered walls converts masterfully into a variety of domestic settings using sliding components. His set, which gives the audience a linear perspective on the action, is aided by Jack Mehler’s otherworldly lighting, which attempts to counterbalance the utter implausibility of the play’s script with noticeable technical prowess.

This production is certainly no disaster. Its pace is spry, its performances are adept, and the language shines at certain spots spots thanks to Aguirre-Sacasa’s poetic use of language. Unwisely, however, the play concludes on a wildly far-fetched note, leaving the audience unsure of just what to believe from the story they’ve been been presented over the past few hours. Though leaving an audience with food for thought is often a thrilling virtue in a play, it’s important nonetheless to throw the audience a few crumbs and to give them a dynamic, sure-handed lens through which to view the play at hand. In that department, King of Shadows is lacking.

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