The University of Rhode Island Theatre Department returns to the Robert E. Will Theatre with an energetic and inventive new production of Qui Nguyen’s “She Kills Monsters.” First premiering Off-Off Broadway in 2011, “She Kills Monsters” dives deep into the world of the role playing game Dungeons and Dragons to trace one sister’s journey to understand the inner life of the younger sister she never really got to know. Winner of the 2013 Distinguished Play Award from the American Alliance for Theater and Education, the play blends fantasy, 1990s pop culture and a coming-of-age story into a witty and heartfelt dramedy that is full of surprises.
“She Kills Monsters” begins with a darkly ironic premise, introducing us to Tilly Evans, “the most uncommon form of nerd in the world – a girl-nerd” only to reveal that the story is actually about her boring older sister Agnes, who “never left home” and is stuck in a “permanent state of averageness.” Now a schoolteacher, Agnes’ impulsive wish for a less boring life is granted, tragically, through a fatal car crash in which she loses Tilly and the rest of her family. In mourning and packing up Tilly’s bedroom, Agnes discovers her sister’s Dungeons and Dragons playbook. With the aid of high school geek, Chuck, she plays through the quest that Tilly created. In fighting a series of monsters alongside the rest of Tilly’s warrior companions, she is able to reconnect with the sister she never really knew.
Qui Nguyen, also a television and film writer for Netflix and Walt Disney, is a playwright known for his innovative use of puppetry and stage combat. Nguyen is also the founder of Vampire Cowboys Theatre Company, an award winning troupe credited for creating “Geek Theatre,” bringing action-adventure, science fiction, gaming and comic book themes to live theater. URI Theatre’s “She Kills Monsters” is indeed playfully interdisciplinary. It is well-calibrated for this cultural moment, as audiences have a growing awareness of Comic-Con and have seen the rise in popularity of retro games like Dungeon and Dragons, which features prominently in the hit Netflix series “Stranger Things.”
Like the role playing game that forms the narrative structure, “She Kills Monsters” thrives on its collaborative approach to storytelling. It features a large cast of 16 players, including several who serve as puppeteers. Under the direction of recent URI graduate Madison Cook-Hines, technical and design elements are front and center as integral to the story as it weaves from adventure to comedy to fantasy and to drama. Tilly’s final quest is recreated with the help of monsters, fairies, elves and dragons. Student puppet designer Dean Hernandez does a fantastic job, along with a team of volunteers, with creating a cast of nearly two dozen puppets, including goblins, worgs, a gelatinous cube, a giant eyeball monster and the show’s final coup de théâtre, the giant five-headed dragon Tiamat. Intricate and extensive stage combat is woven throughout the production, brought to life by combat choreographer, Max Ponticelli. Ponticelli’s set design is also critical in allowing the vibrant fantasy world to fill the stage as a larger-than-life spectacle. By contract, the world of reality is played in smaller spaces, creatively lit by Yasmin Yacoby. Yacoby and Ponticelli also have a lot of fun with other innovative set and lighting tricks, particularly the shadow plays enacted behind an enormous backlit translucent scrim.
The ensemble works well with Nguyen’s dialogue, which is awash with pop cultural references and teen slang. Shannon Donnelly is vivacious and charming in the role of Tilly, embodied here within her own fantasy world as Tillius the Paladin, “the brains of the operation.” Erin McGowan shows a lot of emotional range as Agnes, exploring and challenging her own constrained identity while trying to uncover the inner life of her lost sister. Tilly’s fantasy scenario reveals personal struggles with her homosexuality, school bullies, and close relationships with classmates and friends who face their own challenges. Jess Ring is stellar in a role that shows her as Lilith, a shy closeted teen in the real world, but bold demon warrior heroine within Tilly’s fantasy. The three actresses share a heart-wrenching scene that deals with Lilith’s relationship with Tilly and her coming to terms both with her own sexuality and the tragic loss of the one true friend who tried to know her. For a breezy and action-packed production, these tender moments stand out for their penetrating heartache and insight.
Comic relief also abounds. Andrew Linn is a steady and often hilarious presence as the geeky appointed dungeon master, Chuck. David J. Richards steals a number of scenes with cameos as the hapless great Mage, Steve. Alana Parrott is a riot as the evil faerie, Farrah, who tries to banish the hero “freakzoids” from her forest, but meets an unfortunate end.
You do not have to be a fan of fantasy or role playing games to enjoy URI Theatre’s “She Kills Monsters.” Cook-Hines and her cast and crew locate an authenticity and wisdom within the fast-paced and funny show, which runs under 90-minutes without intermission. URI’s show upends dominant stereotypes of fantasy and comic-book fandom, representing characters bullied not only for being geeks, but also characters who are gay and lesbian, women, people of color and disabled. The production’s foremost achievement is the way it explores the affinities between collaborative fantasy world creation and theatrical storytelling and fuses them in service of universal themes of love, grief, and being rejected by society. Tilly’s Dungeons and Dragons narrative, like theater itself, gives life to things lost. As Tilly remarks near the end of the play, “isn’t that essentially all that life is - a collection of stories? This is one of mine.”