King of Shadows - Flat Earth Theatre
King of Shadows – Flat Earth Theatre
Review by James Wilkinson
King of Shadows is presented by Flat Earth Theatre. Written by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa. Directed by Michael Hisamoto. Scenic design: Ryan Bates. Costume Design: Erica Desautels. Props Design: Emily Penta. Lighting Design: PJ Strachman. Sound Design: Bram Xu. Puppetry Consultant: Libby Schap.
The titular character from Flat Earth Theatre’s new production, The King of Shadows never makes an onstage appearance. At least, not a flesh and blood one. In Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa’s play, he makes his presence and the presence of his companion, the Green Lady felt in other, much more nefarious ways. Characters are left peeking over their shoulder, looking out of the corner of their eye, speaking about him in hushed tones. They’re aware that something is coming, something bad, but never quite able to put their finger on what’s happening. He acts as a kind of distant cousin to the Slender Man, a dark figure who kidnaps children and takes them away to another world, (Slender Man having his own origins in the story of the Pied Piper and about half a dozen other mythical child-snatching creatures). He’s like the weather, uncontrollable and unstoppable. Flat Earth’s production goes to great lengths to try to make you as afraid of the King of Shadows as the characters and I’m sorry to report back that I never got anywhere close. Despite some valiant efforts by the cast to sell the story on the page, there just isn’t enough here for the production to lift off.
The introduction to the play’s main threat comes to us via an indirect angle. Our protagonist is Jessica, (Laura Chowenhill), a graduate student working on a paper about homeless youth in the west coast city where she lives. She’s plastered the area with flyers, fishing for interviewees and manages to snag a bite with teenager, Nihar, (Trinidad Ramkissoon). Nihar is a homeless, young, gay, person of color with no parents in the picture and who occasionally engages in sex work to survive. He’s also a skilled visual artist (which will be important later) and seems to be the ideal candidate for the type of work that Jessica is engaging in. Perhaps that’s why she becomes so attached to him. Their first meeting ends when Nihar becomes increasingly paranoid about an approaching threat, but Jessica pursues him, thinking she can help. Eventually, Nihar asks to be allowed to stay at Jessica’s home for two nights. Why? He won’t say. At least, not until he’s safely inside where Jessica lives with her cop boyfriend Eric (Matt Crawford) and younger sister Sarah (Abigail Erdelatz). That’s when Nihar tells them that he’s on the run from the King of Shadows, a figure that Nihar claims is responsible for some forty other teen runaways that have gone missing. It’s an incredible story, one that Jessica struggles to make sense of as it begins to appear that Nihar may not be the person that he presents himself to be.
In trying to determine exactly where this went wrong for me, all roads seem to lead back to the King of Shadows (the character, that is). I think that the production really struggles with how to make him a compelling figure when he never makes an appearance onstage, (in theory, we know it can be done. How many libraries could we fill with research papers babbling on about who or what Godot is?). Eventually his presence, (or lack thereof), drags the whole thing down. Working with lighting designer PJ Strachman and puppetry consultant Libby Schap, director Michael Hisamoto employs some clever shadow play to try accentuate what’s happening in the scenes and build that sense of menace, but eventually it just feels as though they’re trying to make up for weakness in the script. We’re always getting our information second hand, hearing about something that happened somewhere else at some other time. The scene where Nihar first explains his relationship to the Shadow Kind essentially amounts to a giant exposition dump giving the other characters in the scene nothing to do other than register their disbelief or to encourage him to “go on” with his fantastic tale. It’s clearly supposed to grip us in our seats, but it just becomes unengaging for an audience.
The acting team is excellent (as you’d expect with a Flat Earth show), but are so many small moments in the script that feel either underdeveloped or inconsistent. Take the opening scene when Jessica meets Nihar. Within moments of meeting her he tells her that her boyfriend will soon tell her that he loves her for the first time (later, he does). What isn’t clear, though is how Nihar knows this. Can he predict the future? Has he lived this before? We don’t know and this superpower of his never appears again, so what’s the point? (I know what the point is, it’s a quick way to try to get the audience to see him as mysterious.) Meanwhile, Jessica bats away about a dozen red flags in agreeing to let Nihar stay overnight at her house. Why? Is her do-gooder guilt really enough of a reason to let her invite a complete stranger displaying erratic behavior to sleep down the hall from her teenage sister?
I will say that there’s a fantastic kernel of an idea in Aguirre-Sacasa’s set-up that has to do with certain liberal-leaning mindsets that put the people into boxes. Jessica starts the play in a place of high privilege and claiming to want to listen to the stories of the disenfranchised, but the truth is that she goes to her first meeting with Nihar fully invested not only in her preconceived notions about what his story as a homeless youth must be but also in her belief that she knows what’s best. It’s when his story doesn’t line up with her idea of a “perfect” homeless youth that she begins to reject him. Again, this is a fascinating idea worth exploring, but it gets swallowed up by the King of Shadows storyline and whether or not Nihar is telling the truth, lying or just crazy. At the end of the day, that’s not as interesting.
It’s somewhat heartbreaking to write this review, mostly because I think that Flat Earth has been on an incredible run of shows as of late. Their production of The Nether was possibly my favorite production of last year (certainly in the top three) and their production of A Bright Room Called Day was right up there in the year before that. I do think that this production is a misstep, but it’s unfair and unrealistic to expect anyone to bat a thousand. I look forward to seeing them bounce back.
King of Shadows is presented by Flat Earth Theatre June 7-22, 2019 at the Black Box at the Mosesian Center for the Arts.
For tickets and more information, visit their website: www.flatearththeatre.com
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