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A CurtainUp Review
King of Shadows
Aguirre-Sacasa notes in the program that the play was commissioned by The California Shakespeare Company, and he evidently took pains that his work fulfill the unique specifications of his grant. That is, that his play would "speak" to the San Francisco community and, equally important, that it would be inspired by a Shakespeare work. He hits the mark in both respects. However, the overall dramatic structure leans far too much on its mythic spirits —- the King of Shadows and The Green Lady— to make it plausible. The fact that both spirits remain offstage for the entire play make them even less viable as dramatic creations and the ntersection of the supernatural and natural worlds simply aren't sufficiently integrated.
Looking beyond the supernatural elements, however, Aguirre-Sacasa's work holds its ground as an artfully powerful tract on homeless teenagers— especially those who are gay, lesbian, or questioning their sexual identity. Even though the author doesn't achieve all of his ambitious goals, no one will find the play dull. It has the whiff of real life and gains compelling insights into the hearts and souls of at-risk teens. It is the topsy-turvy story of 15-year-old Nihar (Satya Bhabha), a homeless runaway who believes he's being followed by supernatural demons that we get to see up-close the poisonous dangers lurking in street life, and how delusions can easily ferment in the mind when one's disconnected to society at large.
Jessica (Kat Foster), a young social worker in her late 20s and graduate student at Berkeley, meets Nihar after he responds to one of her teen outreach flyers, which she has posted in San Francisco's various neighborhoods. After a few sessions of listening to details of his personal story (he's gay and sells sex to survive), and recording his voice for her thesis project, Jessica offers to take in Nihar for 2 nights. He has piqued her interest. His strange tale about the demonic King of Shadows both intrigues and deeply disturbs her. Even though it rubs against the grain of her common sense, she feels that offering Nihar shelter for 2 nights would be her opportunity to make a contribution to society.
Not surprisingly, Jessica's live-in boyfriend Eric (Richard Short) who's in his early 30's, loudly expresses his reservations about having Nihar as a houseguest. A no-nonsense San Francisco policeman (transplanted from New York City), he is the most rational character in the play, even though his ideas seldom seem to be taken seriously by his girlfriend. Jessica's lesbian 15-year-old sister Sarah (Sarah Lord) conveys her anger about Nihar's visit in flip comments. No doubt his visit will only confirm that her home life will never take on the cozy glow of a Norman Rockwell painting.
The famous fog of San Francisco insinuates itself both physically and metaphysically into almost every scene. Not only is it a good metaphor but it becomes the fifth character in the play. It also continually serves to blur the line between illusion and reality, chaos and order, street life and a sense of home.
Like A Midsummer Night's Dream, Aguirre-Sacasa's play often verges on being a silly concoction. Fortunately, the playwright injects canny references and allusions from Shakespeare's classic which add texture and multiple levels of meaning. Nihar is obviously a stand-in for Shakespeare's Indian boy, but there are more subtle connections to Shakespeare's text to be savored. The most powerful scene, in fact, is when Jessica recounts Nihar's life story to Eric, revealing that his birth mother is an English literature professor living in Baltimore, Maryland. Jessica proceeds to reinforce her point by picking up a copy of Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream and reading Oberon's famous speech that begins: "I know a bank where the wild thyme blows,/ Where oxslips and the nodding violets grow. . ." Listening to Jessica read this dream-like reverie to Eric, one can truly enjoy the dreamscape of both Shakespeare's play and Aguirre-Sacasa's modern-day interpretation. This is a scene to be treasured even though the play doesn't achieve another such moment of dramatic intensity.
The acting is outstanding from the getgo. That thing called good chemistry is evident throughout. Satya Bhabha, as Nihar, is terrificm conveying toughness and street smarts. But the entire ensemble is spot-on and has crackerjack timing.
Director Connie Grappo has her own kind of magic. She keeps the play moving along at a miraculous pace and ensures that the whole production is greater than the sum of its parts. From the opening music (M. L. Dogg) floating over the empty stage, to the palpable silence lingering after the last line is spoken, she lets nothing go to waste.
Despite its flaws, King of Shadows is connected to Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream with a capital "C." Both plays suggest a deep sensitivity to the working-class and disenfranchised. The playwright, who is also the award-winning writer for Marvel Comics, has given us some solid work in the past with Good Boys and True (Curtainup review)and Based on a Totally True Story (Curtainup review). No doubt we can expect more from this multi-talented writer.