Pop-Up Underworld – ELEMENTS THEATRE RETURNS WITH THE DARK FANTASY ‘KING OF SHADOWS’

Courtesy photo
Courtesy photo

When both founding members of Elements Theatre Collective respectively left Goleta and Santa Barbara to follow their graduate careers on the East Coast, there was a brief moment — at least among their fans — when the pop-up theater looked set to dissipate.

But not so. The always-evolving company returns this weekend with “King of Shadows,” under the direction of Kate Bergstrom, who currently teaches theater at Laguna Blanca Middle School.

Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa’s play doffs its cap several times to Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” but is set in modern times. In it, a naive social worker, Jessica (Jennifer Marco) takes under her wing 17-year-old runaway, Nihar (Nicholis Sheley), who’s been turning tricks on the street. In exchange for shelter, he tells her about a “King of Shadows,” who lives in a netherworld and has abducted 40 children. If he can make it through these two days, until the summer solstice, then he’ll escape the King’s grasp. And in the play, what sounds like fantasy may actually be true. Supporting characters include Jessica’s cop boyfriend, Eric (Josh Jenkins), and her sister, Sarah (Allison Lewis Towbes). Relationships crumble and reshape as the play goes on.

“The play is witty and fun, and I began to fall in love with it once the process of putting on the production started,” says Ms. Bergstrom, who was called in to direct near the end of last year.

Mr. Aguirre-Sacasa has written and produced for television, with “Big Love” and “Glee” among his work. He also scripts comics for Marvel and elsewhere, and has written around ten plays. Fantasy and humor often combine in his work, but as evidenced by Elements’ bare bones staging, plays like “King” rely on the power of words and the suspense over the truth.

“This is almost a magical, realism-meets-kitchen sink, drama-meets-expressionism,” Ms. Bergstrom says about the play. “It’s like Gabriel García Marquez with David Mamet-y dialog and a bit of Sam Shepard too.”

Ms. Bergstrom cast Josh Jenkins after working with him on SBCC’s “Antigone.” Longtime friends since elementary school, the two met up again when Ms. Bergstrom recently moved back to town. Ms. Marco commutes in from Santa Maria to work and was last seen in Circle Bar B’s “The Importance of Being Ernest.” Mr. Sheley also comes from Santa Maria. And some of Ms. Bergstrom’s students are part of the show: Allison Towbes (yes, of the Towbes family) and understudy Mia Chavez.

“It’s night and day watching them being students — to seeing them in a semi-professional production as actors,” Ms. Bergstrom says.

“All the actors have undergone huge transformations in these characters. They’ve really put themselves outside their comfort zones for this.”

So the future of Elements looks good. While co-founders, Emily Jewell and Sara Rademacher oversee the company from afar, the local operations have been handed over to Mary Plant-Thomas as new artistic director and Rob Grayson as executive director. The company continues its pop-up aesthetic with this production, starting tonight with two shows at Piano Kitchen, then moving on to performances at the McDermott-Crockett Mortuary, Java Jones, the Santa Barbara Public Library, UCSB, Carpinteria’s Women’s Club, DiviniTree Yoga and Art Studio, and special shows at Casa Esperanza and Garden Court.

Ms. Bergstrom has directed pop-up theater before as part of a gallery in Los Angeles, where she directed performance arts in spaces like breweries and museums. But this is the first time she’s really done a play in these various settings.

“We’re trying to really have a dialog with this play in different communities,” she says. “The audience for UCSB will be a different one than who goes to see it in a yoga studio. But that’s Elements’ mission: bringing theater to different people throughout the county. And I’m just gonna go for it.”

King of Shadows
When: 8 p.m. tonight, 2 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 23.
Where: Opening night: Piano Kitchen, 430 Rose Ave.
Cost: Free
Information: elementstc.org, or 232-4382

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