She Kills Monsters is a fun flashback to ’90s RPG nerdery
Daisy Productions‘ presentation of Qui Nguyen’s She Kills Monsters opened at the Sweet Action Theatre at Artscape Youngplace last night in all its geeky glory, a rollicking ride with a scrappy, Fringe Festival vibe.
Playwright Qui Nguyen’s New York-based Vampire Cowboys theatre company is often credited as the originators of “Geek Theatre” – theatre inspired by superheroes, graphic novels, and martial arts flicks, often presented at comic cons. “Geek Theatre” is alive and well in Toronto.
Agnes (Suzanne Miller), a resolutely “normal” 24-year old high school teacher from Ohio, loses her parents and 15-year-old sister Tilly (Kelly Taylor) to a car crash. Desperate to understand the sister with whom she seemed to have less and less in common, when she finds a Dungeons & Dragons campaign Tilly wrote, she is determined to play it. Enlisting the help of a Twizzler-chomping high schooler named Chuck (Evan Sokolowski), she gets sucked into Tilly’s world where learns about the students under her care who were the inspiration for many of the characters.
Overall, the success of a D&D campaign rests on story, character relationships, and the world it creates. She Kills Monsters does well with all three. Nguyen’s script is sometimes quite moving, and sometimes a bit stilted. Influenced by shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but not quite up to that level, it’s fast-paced, comic-book dialogue with a layer of meaning and emotional impact on top of the trivial. As long as you go in with an appreciation for the form, you’ll enjoy yourself.
Set in 1995, likely around the time most of the cast was born, the show presents a time capsule in both excellent and unfortunate ways. Like getting slapped in the face with mid-90s slang, it preserves fairly perfectly the decade’s aesthetic, from costumes to colour scheme, to a selection of era-appropriate music – TLC and Beck, Spice Girls and The Rembrandts.
It’s a reminder of how far we’ve come in two decades in terms of geek culture and LGBTQ acceptance, featuring a progressive lens and predominantly female cast over era-appropriate sex jokes that highlight how poorly they’ve aged. The cast gamely leans into it all, and to be fair, a long, extended riff on the double entendre potential of role-playing is so protracted that it’s actually funny.
The production has to equally create the world of 1995 and the world of high fantasy, and director Zachary Moull manages both through effective costumes (Kayla ChaterjI) and props that do a lot with a low budget. Whimsical projections by Lorena Torres Loaiza turn a classroom projector into an instrument of magic, and attire changes from succubus to student with minimal alterations. Maps are comically long, weapons give the illusion of weight, and transitions between the two worlds are smooth and swift.
The rhythmic dialogue occasionally flags, but the combat remains relentless. There is a lot of stage-fighting that ranges from silly to serious. It’s all expertly handled by fight choreographers Josh Hood and Lee Stone.
Miller has the most emotional impact as the outsider Agnes. She’s happy to be playing “with” Tilly, yet trying to accept that she’s only a memory with varying success. Left with the knowledge that, even in D&D, sometimes characters die and can’t be resurrected, her heartbreak feels real, as does their sibling relationship. Sokolowski makes his voice break convincingly as the earnest, unsuave DM. His comic relief fades in the moments where we remember that he’s really the one playing Tilly, which is effectively grounding.
The band of adventurers entertainingly play up their stereotypes, contrasted with the reality of their student forms. Esther Stellar’s sarcasm-deficient elf and Madelaine Rose’s badass enforcer demon are highlights, as are the cheerleader succubus team of Emily Ferrier and Ermina Pérez. Their Mean Girl nastiness is perhaps the scariest part of a world of shapeshifters and dragons. The dragon, when it finally emerges, is a very impressive piece of physical theatre.
In the show’s most amusing running gag, Lee Stone makes an impression as the deeply nerdy and hapless student-adventurer Steve, who gets rapidly dispatched in more and more inventive ways.
While it does seem odd that Agnes and Tilly’s parents, also dead, never come up in her mourning or their conversations, She Kills Monsters effectively uses the framing device of the role-playing game to explore the themes of grief and the power of storytelling to improve our lives. It’s supportive enough for the non-geeky and inside-baseball enough to entertain connoisseurs of the form. It’s a satisfying campaign – not quite a natural 20, but very far from a Critical Fail.
- She Kills Monsters is playing at Artscape Youngplace (180 Shaw St.) until November 2nd, 2019.
- Shows run at 8:00PM Thursday-Saturday.
- Tickets are $23 plus service fee and can be purchased online, or are $25 at the door.
Photo of Suzanne Miller, Esther Stellar, Kelly Taylor, and Madelaine Rose by Sundance Nagrial