Tuesday, September 09, 2008

King of Shadows

Photo/Carel DiGrappa

You can tell by the sharply polished dialogue of King of Shadows that Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa's written comic books. His presentational dialogue and narrative asides are a nice fit for the solid lines of a comic's colorful paneling, and his small talk expertly drives the action forward. ("What kind of noises?" "I don't know--voices." "Suspicious voices?" "Yeah, sure. Loud, suspicious voices.") Even his setting is comic book-like: no one is every truly "dead" (or even really in danger), for while there may be evil, it's always veiled by the safety of words. The fantasy novels he's been influenced by are far from dark (or deep: sorry Shakespeare), and that leaves his hint of magical realism without any bite.

But what audiences can't tell, at first, is where King of Shadows is going, and that's because Aguirre-Sacasa's voice is at least fresh and original. As he builds his world, the show zips by, emitting an emphatically youthful sound. But his material ages quickly, and by the end of the first act, it is overwrought and laborious. Although Connie Grappo's direction valiantly races to beat this doomsday clock (aided by Wilson Chin's quick and tightly streamlined fold-out alleyway of a set), the intermission--which has us mull over the contradictory characters and overcooked plot--sort of kills it.

But things start well, as Jessica (Kat Foster) a naive do-gooder (somewhat redundant, given our selfish culture) tries to use the settlement money from her parents' tragic death to pay things forward to a capital-C Community, her dissertation's "Disenfranchised, At-risk, Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Cross-gendered, and Questioning Homeless Youth in the Metropolitan Bay Area." Her latest subject is a boy named Nihar (Satya Bhabha), who we're meant to think is a homeless, meth-using male prostitute only because he prefers the terms "sucking cock" and "getting reamed" to Jessica's prettified "survival sex" terminology. (This is the first of many contradictions: from the way Emily Pepper puts trendy holes in his costume to the housefly-like attitude of Bhabha, he's really just a loveable scamp.) Drawn to his tale of a victimizing "King of Shadows," Jessica offers him sanctuary for two days, despite her cop boyfriend Eric's (Richard Short) warnings and her overprotective feelings for her fifteen-year-old sister, Sarah (an atittudinal Sarah Lord, who steals every scene).

At this point, Aguirre-Sacasa runs out of steam (perhaps he moonlights as the smoke machine) and just starts making things up. Sarah and Nihar, both gay, hook up and plan to run away and Eric, of the flimsy, paragraph-long backstory, is dumped by Jessica shortly after he blurts out a confession of love. Fantasy or not, there isn't a compelling reason for any one of these things to happen, and these stubborn traits read more as plot devices than the elements of character. Worse, Aguirre-Sacasa treats the characters just like Jessica unwittingly treats her sister--"the easiest thing not to deal with"--when he focuses on an easy, fantastical conclusion instead.

"Let me touch something," Jessica says, "a real thing--let me hold it, feel its weight, in my hands; let it live in my mind, in my heart--and I come up...woefully inadequate." Things aren't quite so bad for the playwright, but whether or not he wants to focus on the real world--there are some very bright moments there between the two sisters and the two children--he needs to add an element of danger to the show, something that reminds us it's not just a fairy tale.

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