Shadow play

The most important components in crafting an effective supernatural drama are almost certainly the mundane ones. The fantastic only becomes compelling when the characters who experience frightening events are believable, and their stories are emotionally resonant. Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa’s King of Shadows, currently playing at the Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center, seems to understand the need to ground the material in the grit of real lives as it weaves together Shakespearean fairies and inter-dimensional travel with teenage runaways and drug addiction. It offers a rich set-up with many satisfying moving parts, and if the end result is somewhat jumbled, it is nevertheless an entertaining journey.

At the core of the story is the relationship between Jessica Denomy, a graduate student researching homeless teens for her dissertation, and Nihar, a 15-year-old runaway turning tricks and taking drugs in San Francisco’s nastiest neighborhoods. Nihar also shows some unusual characteristics from the beginning; refusing to sleep outdoors at night, a fear of thunderstorms, the ability to predict the future, and an unusual familiarity with Jessica’s personal life — a fact Jessica inexplicably fails to notice, though perhaps we are to attribute her obliviousness to her self-absorption. It soon becomes clear that Nihar believes himself a runaway not from abusive parents but from the evil King of Shadows and the Green Lady, characters linked to Shakespeare’s Oberon and Titania from A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Jessica’s younger sister, Sarah, is sympathetic to Nihar’s story, but her police officer boyfriend, Eric, is extremely skeptical.

The truth of Nihar’s story is only a small portion of the story’s tension. Also churning around are the tragic deaths of Jessica and Sarah’s parents years earlier, the disappearance of teens from San Francisco streets, the burden of fear, the nature of belief, and the intrusiveness of unrequested assistance.

If King of Shadows fails to bring these many elements together satisfactorily or coherently, it is no fault of Allie Perez Katz as Jessica, whose spirited performance is the highlight of the show. Julie Marin, as Sarah, is also effective and nuanced as Sarah. Montel Hadley as Nihar and Salvador Valdez as Eric make valiant efforts, but their performances are hampered by difficulties hardwired into their roles. As a character, Nihar is vague and uncertain, vacillating between the unlikable meth addict and the sympathetic dreamer, with these shifts coming without dramatic purpose or payoff. Eric is over-written bombastic, burdened with a back story that muddles rather than clarifies.

The spare sets worked well with the material, and while the sound direction suffered from some opening night glitches, under the best of circumstances, blasts of raucous music on the heels of emotionally charged moments are always going to be intrusive and unwelcome.

More distracting, however, is the play’s failure to latch onto any of its specific themes or link them to the characters. The potency of Nihar’s belief in the deadly King of Shadows is stunted less by the possibility that he is lying, drug addled or insane than by the play’s stubborn refusal to let the audience share his fear. The King himself remains a vague abstraction, and, if anything, the King’s world of unspoiled nature and eternal life sounds like a place many of us would be more inclined to visit than flee. There is some vague gesturing toward Jessica’s emotional involvement in this narrative, such as a memory that links the mysterious Green Woman to Jessica’s mother’s death, but those threads fall away almost as soon as they are introduced. Similarly frustrating in its irrelevance is the link to A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which feels tacked on and adds no depth, emotional content, or literary significance. Like the mystery of the missing teenagers, it is neither explained nor given potency in its ambiguity.

Ultimately, King of Shadows grapples with rich material, but lacks the will to synthesize its many interests into an effective narrative. Audiences tolerant of ambiguities more negligent than artful will nevertheless enjoy its fantastical elements, thoughtful — if insufficiently examined — questions, and engaging performances. •

King of Shadows
Guadalupe Theater
$10, $8 students/seniors/military
8pm Fri Oct 22, 29; Sat Oct 23, 30
2:30pm Sun Oct 24, 31

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