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King of Shadows

Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa's creepy-cool new play evokes Shakespeare and comic books. logo
Satya Bhabha and Sarah Lord in King of Shadows
(© Carel DiGrappa)
Everyone looks down on graduate students. Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa's creepy-cool new play, King of Shadows at Theatre for the New City, captures this simple hierarchy when Nihar (Satya Bhabha), a runaway kid, sneers at do-gooder Jess' (Kat Foster) admission that she's a, gulp, grad student. Doing good is often something a grad student does to feel better -- or to complete her dissertation. For Jess, it's both, as she traverses the Bay Area, seeking homeless LGBT youth to interview and aid. This is how she comes across Nihar, a charmingly prescient wastrel with a vocabulary that would be at home in one of her classes. Or a graphic novel.

Despite the clunky conventionality that creeps in to the play -- a clichéd back-story, the device of direct address -- King of Shadows is neither an inspirational tale nor an exploration of guilty liberalism. It's a yarn for those hours between dusk and dawn when you warm to the possibility that your dreams just might be true; when you entertain images of mysterious portals, carnivorous butterflies, and underworld overlords; and when you wonder why you can more easily make sense of childhood abuse than the supernatural.

The plot engine gets going when Nihar asks to come home with Jess. She knows she should maintain her boundaries, but relents when he promises to fill her in on dozens of missing homeless youth. So back to the homestead they go -- over the protestations of her cop boyfriend, Eric (Richard Short) -- where Jess is the guardian of her teenage sister Sarah (Sarah Lord), who has kind of an Avril Lavigne thing going on (both in terms of the look and its disingenuous theatricality). Although Nihar and Sarah both self-identify as gay, they quickly form a quasi-romantic bond. But what mainly links them is fear. Indeed, that's the common thread for the play's quartet of characters. All have suffered some trauma, and all have some insufficient mechanism for coping. Only Nihar has a permanent solution.

Connie Grappo directs the work with the stylistic boldness it craves. Tense moments are underscored with eerie music and lighting. (The appropriately unsubtle sound and light design are, respectively, by M.L. Dogg and Jack Mehler.) Wilson Chin's cavernous set -- which is both large and invokes a cavern -- maintains a sense of danger even in domestic mode. The performances are earnest and urgent, with Lord spot-on and Foster finding the sympathetic core of a character who can exclaim, without a trace of irony, "Never despair!"

The play ultimately draws a little from Shakespeare, but also from comic books, and the sights and sounds of San Francisco. And in the way it invites you into its porous reality, it's inspired.

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