Furthering their mission to bring authentic live theater to a broader audience in Santa Barbara, the Elements Theatre Collective presented King of Shadows last Friday at the Piano Kitchen, a performance space on Rose Avenue, just off East Haley Street. Roberto Aguirre-Socasa’s play examines the moral dilemma of a Berkeley grad student named Jessica (Jennifer Marco), whose research project on homeless teens enmeshes her in the fantastical and gruesome visions of one such youth, Nihar (Nicholis Sheley). Director Kate Bergstrom has put together a fine cast for this production and gambled successfully on her hunch that actual teenagers Allison Lewis Towbes (as Jessica’s younger sister, Sarah) and Nicholis Sheley could handle the show’s dark and twisted subject matter. The four-person cast is rounded out by Josh Jenkins, who plays Eric, Jessica’s boyfriend and a working policeman who suspects that Nihar is not what he claims to be.
Jessica grapples realistically with Nihar’s aggressive moves to infiltrate her life, and Jenkins delivers a forceful, physically bold characterization of the conflicted Eric. But the real heart of this show beats in the connection between Nihar and Jessica’s rebellious little sister. As Sarah, Towbes cracks wise and sophisticated with her sister and her sister’s boyfriend, only to display another, more vulnerable side with Nihar. Sheley’s mercurial performance as Nihar leaves both the other characters and the audience on edge, never quite sure how far to trust this enigmatic young man. Congratulations to Elements for continuing to provide such compelling, adventurous theater to our whole community at no cost.