You wouldn’t believe that a show set in Athens, Ohio could so penetrate the imagination, but Qui Nguyen‘s She Kills Monsters has you believing that you’re in playing Dungeons & Dragons with your friends. A three-dimensional version of D&D, complete with hot elves, dance battles, and a a five headed dragon.
“Average Agnes,” an uptight English teacher (Sarah Verespej), returns home when her family is killed in a car crash. She regrets never being closer with her younger sister Tilly (Emily Boehlke), an adventurous but nerdy girl who was regarded as a weirdo. But when Agnes stumbles upon Tilly’s D&D module and begins a campaign, it’s like she’s opened her sister’s diary. Suddenly Agnes finds herself inside the notebook, joining Tilly and her friends Lilith Morningstar (Lauren Burghardt) and Kaliope Darkwalker (Riley Truttman) on a quest to recapture the lost soul of Athens from Orcus (Derrick Karas), the demon lord of the underworld. Playing the game reveals her sister’s friendships, conflicts at school, and thoughts on perfect Agnes herself.
She Kills Monsters achieves a twofold success in grounding us in dual worlds: A D&D campaign, and the ’90s. The latter is a lesson in how visceral music is, and how the right Beck or TLC track sets the year better than the fashions or catchphrases of the time (though there’s plenty of those, too). Irreverent but detailed touches make it clear that the One Act Competition Class had a lot of fun constructing this D&D world. A map of New Landia boings on projector screens when called upon; the narrator (Nick Gardison) channeling Lord Elrond from Lord of the Rings glides in to tell the story; there’s even a Gelatinous Cube! Really, we are immersed in the game without having to move a muscle.
An especially challenging aspect that the company handled beautifully was the role-playing. Simple transitions of a school bell or 90’s music took care of the abrupt switches between high school and New Landia. So involved do we get in the gameplay that there are two moments that jerk you out of the action, one funny and one heartbreaking; I don’t want to spoil them, but I will say that one addresses Tilly’s presence as a memory rather than a person.
Now that she’s starting to better understand Tilly’s hopes and angsts, Agnes becomes obsessed with playing the game more, delving further into her sister’s subconscious. She embodies the stereotype of an anti-social gamer, but in an unexpected and not cruel way. Something else that She Kills Monsters wonderfully illustrates is how difficult it is to be caught between social groups. Agnes is a teacher at Tilly’s school, where she starts to put faces to the kids in Tilly’s module; yet she games with one of those students, Dungeon Master Chuck Biggs (Shawn Wilkerson). However, she’s also trying to move on from Tilly’s death and do “adult” things like move in with Miles.
It’s incredible how Agnes is able to reconstruct Tilly from this module and Chuck’s role-playing. Through this role-playing, Chuck allows Agnes to discover a secret that Tilly never shared with her. The secret, Tilly’s homosexuality, is uncovered when Agnes learns that Tilly and Lilith kiss in the D&D world as girlfriends. Agnes if faced with the question of if she really knew her sister when she was alive. The focus of this play is the relationship between the sisters, and how Agnes’ attempt to reconnect with her sibling becomes the vehicle for her own personal growth.
Don’t miss the chance to see this play. I’ve laughed, cried, and cheered my way through it. It’s a stunning example of the power of visceral live theater; plus, it’s heartening to see geekery rendered so lovingly on the stage.