Boo! “The King of Shadows” comes knocking a little too early for Halloween, but Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa has made his creepy ghost story appropriate for all seasons by dressing it up as Shakespeare. Both trick and treat, the play’s tightly plotted twists, occasionally loud references to “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and naturalistic dialogue stay so consistently engrossing it doesn’t occur to you until the end of the evening that the little four-hander is actually a remarkably ambitious fantasy.
The theater will never be able to duplicate, say, Tolkien the way film does. But against the harsh backdrop of San Francisco’s homeless community, Aguirre-Sacasa (“Good Boys and True”) deftly makes use of the stage’s immediacy to recreate the kind of unsettling, close-to-the-ground experience with the unexplained that you might find in a Neil Gaiman short story.
This shouldn’t come as a surprise, given the playwright’s moonlighting projects at Marvel Comics (his next gig is “Man-Thing”) and “Rough Magic,” his “Tempest” adaptation. Other things, however, are less expected.
The playwright’s first hint that this world is not following the prescribed order shows up on the back wall of the theater about 10 minutes into the story. As Jessica (Kat Foster of ” ‘Til Death”), a pretty, slightly condescending grad student, interviews a young male prostitute named Nihar (Satya Bhabha) for her graduate thesis, a huge cloud comes into view behind them. Tumorous, tentacular and bubbling over itself, the monstrosity created by lighting designer Jack Mehler looks like something that chased H.P. Lovecraft through his nightmares, and doesn’t fit into Jessica’s idealistic perspective. There’s something underneath this world.
Jessica’s messiah complex is driven by family tragedy and its corollary: responsibility for her gothy little sister Sarah (Sarah Lord), an angsty faux-lesbian full to overflowing with teenage bad cheer. Weirdly, Sarah is the play’s most interesting and sympathetic character, partly because Lord has a better grip on her part than her castmates. Everybody remembers being a twerp at some point, and it’s sad to see this kid working through things with only Jessica and her suspicious cop boyfriend, Eric (Richard Short), whom she insists on calling “Officer Saunders,” to support her.
Eric is the rational voice: When Jessica brings Nihar home, he immediately objects on all the right grounds, scoffing at the story Nihar recounts about being abducted to another world from India as a child. But, unbeknownst to Eric, this is not a rational world. It’s a fantasy world, which means it’s about longing, and for Sarah, Jessica and Nihar, who have all lost a great deal, it’s dangerously attractive.
The play’s biggest weakness is that Bhabha isn’t convincing. While he has to sell the audience a pretty unlikely line, he doesn’t even seem to be buying it himself, and his incredulity handicaps the play.
Aguirre-Sacasa’s twists, turns and well-placed lies offset this somewhat, but it’s hard not to wonder what the play would have been like with stronger acting. Helmer Connie Grappo hasn’t done much to keep the actors on the same page; Foster occasionally lapses into cartoonishness, and Bhabha simply dangles. Fortunately, the script is strong enough to defer most of these complaints until after the show is over, and Foster has total control over her monologues, especially the play’s wistful closing speech.
Followers of Aguirre-Sacasa’s work frequently say his writing is strong, but they haven’t yet seen his capital-P Play — this may be it. “The King of Shadows” merges his laudable social instincts with modern speculative fiction in a way we don’t often see onstage. Its reinvention of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” is certainly immodest, but it’s hard to call it pretentious when the writer is so nakedly eager to entertain and thrill. The play is a gift to the audience, not to himself, which makes it much easier to take.