Elements Theatre Collective’s newest offering, King of Shadows, follows the basic tenets of this dynamic company, now in its third season: It is edgy material, well-acted and produced, and performed for free at multiple alternative venues around town. And at the same time, it is nothing like anything they’ve done before.
In Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa’s unusual psychological thriller, set in present-day San Francisco, an internal story inspired by William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream is woven into the lives of a mysterious teen runaway (Nicholis Sheley), an earnest graduate student (Jennifer Marco), her cynical cop boyfriend (Josh Jenkins) and her precocious younger sister (Allison Lewis Towbes/understudy Mia Chavez).
Guest director Kate Bergstrom has done a marvelous job with this dense and fascinating material, as have the actors. As Nihar, the street kid with an unbelievable tale to tell, Sheley immediately establishes an intriguingly animalistic, yet sympathetic, presence. His chemistry with Marco as Jessica, the well-meaning researcher, is instant, and she is a no less complex character, torn between her desire to help him and her instinct to protect her loved ones and their reasonably comfortable life.
As Eric, her boyfriend, Jenkins shows subtle yet marked character development throughout as he wrestles with his own demons and his mistrust of Nihar, unsure whether the kid is victim, perpetrator or just delusional. And Towbes sparkles as the sassy yet surprisingly wise Sarah, providing her with unexpected depth.
The four characters inhabit a coffee house, apartment, office, park and more, using a clever revolving set, the work of designer Peter Barnholdt. As there is no real offstage space, when the actors are not in a scene, they sit with their backs to the audience, contributing their presence even when not actively taking part in a scene.
There are no easy answers to the questions raised by this serpentine story, even after the lights have come up. Go see it with a friend and spend some time after the show mulling over its intricacies and implications. You’ll be glad you did, and maybe you will even gain new perspective into our own world.
King of Shadows, playing at multiple venues through Feb. 23, can be seen this weekend at Casa Esperanza, Java Station and the downtown Santa Barbara Central Library. Admission is free, but click here to reserve seats and for more information.
— Justine Sutton is a Santa Barbara freelance writer and frequent Noozhawk reviewer. The opinions expressed are her own.