I knew that Qui Nguyen’s fantastical comedy She Kills Monsters had something to do with the famous (or infamous) role-playing game, Dungeons & Dragons. But when I was confronted by the gigantic, three-dimensional board game that was the set, painted over with arcane symbols and strange numerals, I knew I was out of my league. So, in order to better educate myself, I swarmed a young lady (who will remain anonymous so as to protect her reputation as a theatre professional) who happens to be a stone cold D&D fanatic. She opened my noob mind to the world of Dungeon Masters, 20-sided dice, week long D&D fantasy marathons fueled by Pepsi and pizza rolls, and a desire to lose oneself in the comfort of an imaginary world. Before and after the show, Ms. D&D was mobbed with people who wanted more, more info about this game that they hardly understood. And it is this episode that illustrates the unique pleasure offered by She Kills Monsters: for one night, any one of us, from the theatre geek to the gamer nerd, could be a sexy, heroic paragon of bad-assery.
Indeed, She Kills Monsters is bad ass. Fight Choreographer Casey Kaleba mounts some truly exhilarating brawls, featuring spears, axes, and even a curious gelatinous cube. Like kids with no adult supervision, the dozen cast members leap joyfully between the angular platforms that make up Ethan Sinnott’s excitingly dynamic set. Together with a clever and provoking lighting design by Brian S. Allard, She Kills Monsters lends itself to a lot of testosterone-flavored cheering. But don’t be fooled by the demons, elves, and references to 90’s cult TV series. This is a play about real people who confront real tragedy. Director Randy Baker displays superb agility in his ability to hop from deadly earnestness to D&D mayhem in a flash. Baker sacrifices neither substance nor spectacle as he tells us a story about, well, people who tell stories.
There’s Tilly Evans (Rebecca Hausman) the dorky outcast who creates a breathtaking imaginary world within the confines of Dungeons & Dragons, and invites her geeky acolytes to join her in the make-believe. Her sister Agnes (Maggie Erwin), on the other hand, is more into Friends and The Cranberries than RPGs. But in order to get closer to her sister, Agnes, helped by the hilarious dungeon master Chuck (Robert Pike), dives into the idiosyncratic world of D&D. As she becomes increasingly immersed in the fantasy world her sister dreamt up, she begins to feel closer to Tilly than she ever did in real life. Because in D&D, wheelchairs and insecurities fall away to reveal Tolkien-esque superstars like Lilith (Emily Kester), the demon dominatrix who moans “violence makes me hot” before ripping out the entrails of an adversary. There’s also characters who are a little closer to real life, like Orcus (Louis E. Davis), a soul-stealing demon who sometimes would rather chill out with some cheese whiz instead of battling elves. Either way, words like “geek” or “loser” simply do not apply in this violent, high stakes world. As it turns out, Agnes comes out of this mythical universe with a much better understanding of the real people who populate the real world.
The show would undoubtedly fall flat were it not for the committed and energetic performances by the 12-strong ensemble. Maggie Erwin (Agnes) and Rebecca Hausman (Tilly) create a beautiful sisterly relationship that reveals the flaws and virtues of both women. Meanwhile, Robert Pike is perfect in his portrayal of Chuck Biggs, the quintessential D&D devotee.
Joshua Dick provides a nice contrast as Miles, Agnes’ comparatively normal boyfriend. And Emily Kester, who as both Lilith, the aforementioned leather clad demon, and Lily, the confused and vulnerable high school student, brings a genuine emotional core to a show that could easily forget it has one.
So feel free to get lost in the nostalgia-inducing sound design by Palmer Hefferan, and the hallucinogenic props by Britney Mongold. And by all means, cheer and shout when the good guys are fighting the bad guys. But don’t forget to look a little closer at She Kills Monsters, because there’s a lot more there that you don’t want to miss.
Running Time: One hour and 40 minutes, with no intermission.
She Kills Monsters plays through September 14, 2014 at Rorschach Theatre performing at Atlas Performing Arts Center – 1333 H Street NE, in Washington, D.C. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 399-7993, or purchase them online.