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    Half-way through “King of Shadows,” the new play by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, I was feeling quite pleased with myself for having noticed all the parallels to, and imagery from, “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” Before long, though, one of the characters in the play noticed the similarities as well, confronting another character while angrily waving a worn copy of Shakespeare’s most famous comedy.

    Aguirre-Sacasa, a mild-mannered comic-book author by day, is not the first graphic novelist to be inspired by “Midsummer.” Issue nineteen of Neil Gaiman’s celebrated “Sandman” imagines Shakespeare making a Faustian bargain with the worlds of Faerie and Dream, putting on a play for Oberon’s court in exchange for extraordinary playwriting ability. Gaiman’s story also suggests that Shakespeare’s son Hammet might have been taken by Titania and Oberon, similar to the changeling child that starts all the fuss on “Midsummer.”

    A part of Gaiman’s project in his illustrated work has been to draw connections between the preoccupations of comics and larger literary traditions, not so much borrowing “legitimacy” from these traditions as claiming it. Aguirre-Sacasa seems to have a similar agenda to some extent, not only cross-fertilizing thematic and aesthetic elements of his comic and play writing but apparently trying to reinvigorate theater with the kind of material that once drove the stage’s popular appeal, material that is now often relegated to “genre” fiction and television, where it is sneered upon by some self-proclaimed arbiters of taste but maintains significant popular appeal and cultural significance.

    Aguirre-Sacasa’s interest in the genres and their connection to theater history, as well as his talent for clearly delineated characters and convincing dialogue have made him a playwright to watch. His “The Mystery Plays,” “Say You Love Satan,” and “Based on a Totally True Story,” have all been published and are being produced with increasing frequency by university and regional theater companies. The playwright’s personal background also influences his work in significant ways, and he has garnered no small amount of attention for his status as an openly gay Latino writer working across media and genres.

    Given all of this as a backdrop, “King of Shadows,” has a lot to live up to. A competent but uninspired production from director Connie Grappo, compelling but uneven performances from an appealing cast, and perhaps one too many tightropes walked by the playwright mean the show doesn’t quite live up to expectations, but it is nevertheless an intriguing and diverting evening of theater that isn’t quite like anything else currently showing in New York.

    Jessica (Kat Foster) is a trust-funded graduate student conducting fieldwork interviews with San Francisco’s homeless youth. One of Jessica’s subjects is Nihar (Satya Bhabha), a teenage hustler who seems both particularly smart and particularly paranoid. Nihar weaves a story about abducted children, parallel worlds, and supernatural fogs, leaving Jessica (and the audience) to sort out how much of what he says is urban legend, how much is paranoid fantasy, and how much is simply a con job. When Nihar convinces Jessica to let him stay with her for a couple of nights, things get more complicated. Jessica’s boyfriend Eric (Richard Short), a police officer, strenuously objects to NIhar’s presence and her younger sister Sarah (Sarah Lord) develops an instant fascination for the dangerous stranger. The twists and turns that follow marry Aguirre-Sacasa’s love of storytelling with his obvious concern for the plight of displaced youth (a theme reinforced by the playwright’s program notes.) Despite the relatively static nature of the action (the characters talk about a lot of exciting things that we never actually see on stage), the plotting is compelling enough to keep the audience wondering what will happen next, and guessing at the extent to which Nihar is lying.

    Wilson Chin’s set manages to maintain the gritty feel of the play’s setting while accommodating a variety of locations with set-pieces that fold and slide out from graffitied walls. Jack Mehler’s lighting design reinforces the supernatural underpinnings of the play without tilting the play’s delicate balance of skepticism and credulousness. Grappo wisely keeps the action moving briskly so that pauses for intimacy stand out and the dialogue-heavy piece doesn’t feel weighed down. The performers are all effective. The recently ubiquitous Bhabha exudes charisma and intelligence in a tricky role; Foster sets the pace for each scene with considerable skill; Lord, who was the best reason to see last season’s “Bhutan” at the Cherry Lane Theatre, again proves herself a formidable scene-stealer; Short provides many of the show’s strongest moments in a role that could easily have been the least appealing.

    Throughout the production, though, something is a little off. The design, intended to be evocative and clever, more often feels merely functional. More importantly, the generally impressive actors sometimes come across like they are trying too hard to communicate the high stakes and sense of mystery demanded by this story. As with Shakespeare, sometimes lush language and fantastical situations are rendered more effectively when they are rendered more simply. In scenes wherein we learned about the King of Shadows and his parallel universe, I kept wishing that Bhabha and his cohort, rather than working so hard to sell the tale, would step back and let it sell itself. When an image is beautiful, or frightening, or both, it isn’t always necessary to thrust those adjectives onto the audience with widened eyes and strained voices; it is often more effective to deliver such lines as simply as possible.

    Despite these problems of tone and execution, and despite a final scene in which Aguirre-Sacasa pushes too hard for a smile-through-the-tears moment, “King of Shadows” is worth a look, particularly for those attracted to this kind of material. An up-and-coming cast, a unique playwright, and the admirable agenda of Working Theater — a company committed not only to attracting working-class audiences but to depicting working-class characters — all added to the considerable audience energy on the night I attended. And if this particular play isn’t quite a masterpiece, it at least provides continued hope that Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa will deliver one some day soon.

    SEPTEMBER 13, 2008

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