A confused teen runs away from home and lives on the streets, turning tricks to survive and using meth to dull the pain. A social worker/graduate student meets him in order to use his story as a part of her dissertation. Yet, she finds that this teen is different from other gay youths on the streets. This teen, Nihar, claims to be running from his foster parents, who just so happen to be the “King of Shadows” and the “Green Lady,” and who want to take him back into their world of darkness. Of course, the social worker, Jessica Denomy, thinks he is lying or delusional. In case you haven't guessed by now, Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa's King of Shadows is inspired by A Midsummer Night's Dream . Nihar is allegedly the changeling boy fought over by Titania and Oberon in Shakespeare's play. However, despite his magical upbringing, we are never allowed a peek into Nihar's world. The action takes place in Jessica's apartment, or at the park, or else at other real places. The play tries to maintain a balance between the magical and the real, but ultimately remains firmly ensconced in reality. Instead of showing the magic behind Nihar, the play tells us of it. Jessica's teenage sister Sarah describes being attacked by one hundred “carnivorous butterflies” and Nihar describes the way in which other runaway teens are going missing, but butterflies and kidnapping are never seen on stage. A lot of time is spent having the characters stand under spotlights and narrate parts of the story, as if to serve as a reminder that a tale is unfolding before the audience and as a cheap way to fill in some exposition.
However, what the story lacks in actual, visible magic is made up for by the design elements of the show. Wilson Chin has a constructed a space where couches and stairs slide out of torn poster-coated walls. Lightning storms and purple fog materialize out of nowhere, thanks to the design by Jack Mehler. The fog and lightning serve as the physical evidence that Nihar may actually be what he says he is.
Likewise, the cast does a decent job in bringing their characters to life. Aguirre-Sacasa has provided the actors with fully-fleshed, meaty characters. Kat Foster, as Jessica, is able to elicit equal parts sympathy and revulsion for her character. She went into social work because she had the money and nothing better to do. She truly cares, but is rather unlikeable at times. Yet, it is difficult to not feel sympathy for her by the end. Likewise, Satya Bhabha is completely believable as the lost and fearful Nihar. He plays his role with enough strength and wonderment that it is never certain, until the play's end, whether he is crazy, or a liar, or really a magical being. Richard Short and Sarah Lord round out the strong cast as Jessica's police officer boyfriend and younger sister.
The stage elements do their best to enhance the play, but what is ultimately at issue is the script. It never delves deeply enough into the world of Nihar, choosing instead to depict Jessica's reality and suggesting that we are meant to stay in the realm of the real and not leap off with Nihar through portals into the land of fairies and who knows what else. King of Shadows does an adequate job of showing the reality of social work but never dares to create fully the world that it itself implies.