A comedic romp into the world of fantasy role-playing games, She Kills Monsters tells the story of Agnes Evans as she leaves her childhood home in Ohio following the death of her teenage sister, Tilly. When Agnes finds Tilly's Dungeons & Dragons notebook, however, she stumbles into a journey of discovery and action-packed adventure in the imaginary world that was Tilly's refuge. In this high-octane dramatic comedy laden with homicidal fairies, nasty ogres, and 90s pop culture, acclaimed young playwright Qui Nguyen offers a heart-pounding homage to the geek and warrior within us all.
The Vortex, Albuquerque's oldest continuously-running Black Box Theatre, has been a pioneering venue for classic, contemporary, and cutting-edge theatre since 1976. The theatre continues to entertain audiences with some of the city's finest stage productions, from local and national premieres to new interpretations of classic works.
She Kills Monsters
by Rob Spiegel
Image courtesy of The Vortex Theatre
She Kills Monsters is a nifty little play that took me by surprise. It begins with a peek into the world of Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) circa 1995. The roleplaying game is ruled by the dungeon master (Owen Callis). Early in the play, he's called upon by Agnes (Eleanor Smith). Agnes was recently in a car accident that took the lives of her parents and her younger sister Tilly (Caroline Patz). Agnes wants to explore D&D to learn more about her sister—Tillius in the game.
Agnes spent most of life overlooking her little sister. Agnes was interested in boys and fashion, followed by English literature and teaching, while Tilly was a nerd deeply involved in Dungeons & Dragons and struggled with a heavy crush on a fellow player of the game, Lilly (Evening Star Barron). Agnes remembers an early connection to Tilly as an infant and toddler, but completely ignored Tilly as a child and teenager.
Now that Tilly's gone, Agnes is aghast at her own behavior. So she works with Chuck to open Tilly's D&D notebook and join the action with her sister. While Agnes—never the nerd—is awkward among sword fighters in the murky worlds of colorful foes, she's willing. She's eager for even a fantasy chance to connect with her sister. And Agnes does gets to know her over the course of the play. Fantasy and reality blend as Agnes goes deeper into Tilly's notebooks, guided by Chuck. She meets Tilly's closest friends in the D&D scenes and learns the value of the fantasy, where outcast kids can become sword-wielding heroes of the dark worlds.
Agnes confronts the real-life version of Tilly's D&D mates, including high schooler Lilly, who is Tilly's lover Lilith in D&D. The closeted Lilly is horrified to discover Agnes thinks she was Tilly's lover. Ultimately, though, Agnes' simple sincerity in reaching out to Tilly's world—both real and D&D—wins the affection of Tilly's friends who are also devastated by Tilly's real-world death.
In this 2011 play, Qui Nguyen intertwines real life and the D&D world brilliantly to create a contemporary story of loss and grief. Underneath all the swordfights and fantasy blends is a quiet tale of deep sadness: a woman who realizes too late that she never really saw the beauty and strength of her little sister.
It took two directors to get all this flurry on stage, Bridget S. Dunne and Emily Carvey. Given all the fight scenes, it's handy that Carvey is a fight director and stage combat instructor by trade. After years of watching Game of Thrones, I kinda missed the sound of clashing steel, but the wooden swords on the Vortex stage carried the right idea. The staging is much like an intricate dance, and the direction, lighting (Kevin Benjamin), set design (Evie Noel), and costumes (Louisa O'Neill) are all well done.
The performances are solid, with a few standouts. Callis is terrific as Chuck in all his unassuming goofiness. Smith as Agnes delivers well on her transition from a shy, awkward D&D participant to full-on fighter. She also captures the right level of tender sadness over the loss of her sister. The actors playing Tilly's close friends—Evening Star Barron as Lilly, Anna Nassiff as Kelly, and Bon Boulom as Ronnie—are all excellent.
The real star of this production is Caroline Patz as Tilly. She offers a strong combination of the master sword fighter and lover as well as the shy nerd struggling with a same-sex crush that is an awkward semi-failure. The blend of bravado and vulnerability is terrific.
Thanks, Vortex, for bringing this newish play to Albuquerque.
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