When you leave this world, what are you going to leave behind for your loved ones? Memories? An inheritance? How about an entire fantasy world in which a version of you lives on and offers insight into the person you used to be? That last one is the set up for Qui Nguyen’s She Kills Monsters, currently being produced by Rorschach Theatre at the Atlas Performing Arts Center. It’s a play that attempts to dive deeply into the world of Dungeons and Dragons and the experience of grief—fully nailing the former, while skimming along the surface of the latter.
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She Kills Monsters has been wildly popular since its debut in 2011, and the play’s only benefited from the advent of ‘80s and ‘90s nostalgia and ascendency of geekery (Stranger Things, anyone?). And this is not Rorschach’s first foray into the adventuring world of the play; the company first produced She Kills Monsters in 2014, also under the direction of Randy Baker, to much critical acclaim. In the golden age of movie reboots, it only makes sense for a company to revisit such a successful production five years on.
Some things have changed in the latest version of the production—the most conspicuous being an interactive experience before the play begins. I won’t give too much away, but let’s just say these kinds of spectacles have become something of a signature for Rorschach, and this iteration exhibits a very clever use of the space at the Atlas (note to other theatre companies: when you’re doing a show about high school and there are lockers somewhere in the building, find a way to use them!). That being said, I think there are still a couple of kinks to work out in terms of audience flow (there was a video played that neither I nor my guest were able to see from where we were standing). Also, this pre-show vignette provides a lot of background information; having not seen the show before, I’m not sure how different the experience of learning this information throughout the course of the play proper is.
Once the audience is safety deposited in Lab II, we’re immediately dropped in the middle of a very specific time—Kenny Neal’s music choices (The Smashing Pumpkins, Soul Asylum, Tori Amos, etc.), Kylos Brannon’s video mashups of Saturday morning cartoons, and Julie Cray Leong’s costumes thoroughly transports you back to the ‘90s. Combined with Debra Kim Sivigny’s set design and Brian S. Allard’s lighting, the audience is fully immersed into the world of the play. Innovative design is always a strength of Rorschach’s shows, and She Kills Monsters is no exception.
Within this temporal tableau we’re introduced to our protagonist, Agnes (Christina Day), a 25-year-old high school teacher in Athens, OH, whose parents and younger sister, Tilly (Alanna McNaughton), have recently died in a car accident. As Agnes packs up her strange and distant sister’s belongings with her boyfriend, the milquetoast Miles (Daniel Westbrook), she comes across a notebook containing the narrative for a D&D game. She immediately enlists the aid of her school’s resident Dungeon Master, Chuck (Andrew Quilpa), and dives into the land her sister has created.
Through the aid of a 20-sided die, Agnes enters the world of Newlandia, a fantasy universe in which everyone is queer (amen!) and she meets Tilly’s character, a tough-as-nails paladin. Soon, she’s introduced to the rest of her party, a sexy demon assassin, Lilith (Anna DiGiovanni), an emotionally challenged elf, Kaliope (Stephanie Wilson), and a slacker demon named Orcus (Darius Johnson). Together, the three begin a quest to find a lost soul.
She Kills Monsters closes November 10, 2019. Details and tickets
Along the way, they get into plenty of adventures that allow the cast to have an absolute blast. Standout moments include a fight with a hip-hop-dancing, feminist fairy (Danielle Gallo), a dance battle with a band of cheerleader-succubae (Mary May, Lori Pitts, Briana Manente, and Gallo), and Steve (Jordan Brown), a novice player who dies multiple times in increasingly gruesome ways. Meanwhile, Quilpa’s Chuck directs it all with the nerdy overconfidence that’s a hallmark of the genre. The ensemble embraces the energetic exuberance of the text (with some notable help from dance choreographer Amanda Forstrom and fight choreographer Casey Kaleba) with a gusto, which is an absolute blast to watch.
Meanwhile, back in the real world, Agnes begins to realize that Tilly’s fictional characters have counterparts among the student body. Bit by bit, Agnes learns more and more about her sister’s life and grapples with the regret of not getting to know her better while she was still around. This is where the story fell a bit flat for me. In the interest of full disclosure, when my own sister, who was 12 years older than me, died last year, I was gifted a stack of her notebooks and therefore granted access to a world she never shared with me when she was alive. Needless to say, I found the mixture of grief, loss, and surprise inherent in the plot to be fertile emotional ground but was disappointed to find that the play barely scratches the surface.
Part of it can be attributed up to Nguyen’s script—for example, Agnes seems to have forgotten entirely that her parents also died in that car crash (this ambivalence could be fascinating, if it were ever remarked upon); everyone hates Miles but then is glad when he proposes to Agnes; and there’s an entire unfired Chekhovian gun of a reference to Lilith’s father. Other moments may have come down to directorial or acting choices—for instance, there’s a lot of lip-service to the disorientation Agnes experiences as the world of the game and real world begin to overlap, but it’s not something I ever truly felt. Nguyen gave himself a lot to tackle in one evening of theatre, and I left wishing the real-world stakes within the play were a little lower so the pure fun of the fantasy of the story within the story could shine even brighter.
Alas, as Tilly notes, “D&D is not therapy,” and the unadulterated zaniness of She Kills Monsters and the shear joy the cast is experiencing bringing it to the life is more than enough reason to this show. In fact, I encourage you to see it with someone you love and then start a conversation about it afterward—I promise you won’t regret doing either.
She Kills Monsters by Qui Nguyen. Directed by Randy Baker. Featuring: Andrew Quilpa, Christina Day, Alanna McNaughton, Daniel Westbrook, Briana Manente, Anna DiGiovanni, Stephanie Wilson, Darius Johnson, Mary May, Lori Pitts, Danielle Gallo, and Jordan Brown. Fight choreography: Casey Kaleba. Dance choreography: Amanda Forstrom. Costume design: Julie Cray Leong. Set design: Debra Kim Sivigny. Lighting design: Brian S. Allard. Sound design: Kenny Neal. Properties design: Abigail Stuckey. Video design: Kylos Brannon. Assistant director: Tori Boutin. Produced by Rorschach Theatre. Reviewed by John Bavoso.