When Loretta Greco announced her plan to launch her inaugural season as artistic director of the Magic Theatre with The K of D: An Urban Legend, I was slightly baffled. Not only did the play demand the services of just one actor — which, barring celebrity casting, is usually less of a draw for audiences than an ensemble — but it was also written by dramatist Laura Schellhardt, of whom I had never heard (and neither had Greco until a New York agent sent her the script). Furthermore, the play was a revival — as opposed to a much more attention-grabbing world premiere — and Greco decided not to direct the work herself, choosing instead to recruit local talent in the form of director Rebecca Novick and actor Maya Lawson. Finally, there was the drama's decidedly uncatchy title. "The K of what?" was the first thing a friend asked when I invited her along.
Greco's Magic debut is unorthodox, to say the least. When her predecessor, Chris Smith, kicked off his first season in 2003, it was with a world premiere of Julie Marie Myatt's The Sex Habits of American Women. Carey Perloff began her reign at the American Conservatory Theater in 1992 with a tried-and-true remount of her staging of August Strindberg's Creditors, following a successful run in New York. Tony Taccone, meanwhile, made a resounding statement when he arrived at Berkeley Repertory Theatre in 1997 by directing David Edgar's Pentecost, a play of epic proportions in all senses of the word. Although The K of D makes for a comparatively quirky and understated artistic directorly entrance, it's one of the most beautiful and beguiling theatrical experiences I've had in a long while.
A coming-of-age story set in a podunk Midwestern town over one summer, The K of D is in many ways a play about entrances — and not simply because it represents Greco, Novick, and Lawson's combined Magic Theatre debut. Most of the characters in Schellhardt's spectral story, including the unnamed teenager who serves as the narrator, are on the threshold of adulthood. When Jamie, the twin brother of "skinny Charlotte McGraw" (who may or may not be the narrator herself) dies as a result of being hit by a car while skateboarding, the local kids attempt to make sense of their friend's senseless death. As Charlotte retreats into a state of morbid quietude, the other members of her clique (or "the pack," as the narrator refers to the gang) become increasingly bold. The adolescents take their first shaky steps into maturity — or, at least, a version of it — by, among other "grownup" things, exchanging bubblegum cigarettes for Pall Malls and trying to evict unwanted neighbors. Meanwhile, as piles of dead animals mysteriously materialize around town and a massive heron wheels ominously above the kids' heads following Jamie's fatal accident, Charlotte begins to realize and experiment with her own vastly more unusual powers.
Schellhardt's writing feels vitally urban. The characters, all embodied with mercurial zeal by the precociously talented Lawson — who flickers with firefly grace between playing sassy know-it-alls and awkward youths in baggy pants — wouldn't look out of place in a South Park episode. A snippet of a conversation following Jamie's death among three pack members — the slack-limbed loudmouth Quisp Drucker, the nerdy, nasal-voiced Brett Hoffman (who keeps track of every detail of quotidian life in a notebook), and the ponytail-twirling airhead Steffi — conveys a sense of the dialogic dynamic.
Quisp: I'm telling you. I was there, y'all.
Brett: We were all of us there, Quisp.
Quisp: But I was close, Hoffman, and I'll tell you what. There was something not right about that kiss.
Steffi: Oh my God, like, what if they swapped souls right then and there?
Quisp: Right. Or what if he was trying to take her with him, but he didn't have enough time to seal the deal?
Brett: Or what if the two of you had something less retarded to do with your time than making up stories like little kids?
Quisp: Say what you wanna, Hoffman, but it was weird. That kiss mighta scarred me for life.
But despite the goofy banter of the prose and cartoonish cast of characters, there's something ferociously primal about The K of D. The play is contemporary, yet at the same time feels as old as consciousness, thanks to the powerful use of sound (one of our most basic senses) and the narrative's basis in antique imagery. Schellhardt draws freely on mythological metaphor throughout the play. The violet, a flower that comes to be associated with the twinless Charlotte, was a Roman symbol of mourning and affection for the dead. The Iroquois saw the heron as a good omen and an expert hunter; the bird speaks to both meanings during the course of the play. Furthermore, the drama's crafty tall-tale format brings Native American trickster legends to mind. Charlotte herself could be the outcast mischief-maker, Coyote — a storyteller who has the power to transform people and even give them new life.
More than an urban legend, The K of D is also an ancient myth. The twins, prior to Jamie's death, converse in their own secret language of assorted clicks, whistles, and snorts. In the same way, experiencing the play as an audience member is to get a hint of prehistoric man making his first grunting entrance onto the world stage. It's also to understand our collective desire to attempt to make sense of nature's mysteries through spinning stories. Greco, Novick, and Lawson understand this instinctively. The K of D distills theater to its essence: a lone performer on a simple stage, telling an amazing tale. In representing this most primordial art form in its rawest, barest form, Greco reminds us of why we love theater. It's a brilliant and wise first move on the artistic director's part. And first impressions, as the saying goes, last.