Reviews

Theatre Review: Rich Fantasy Lives

BANNER_Opinions2013

She Kills Monsters
written by Qui Nguyen
produced by Loft Ensemble in Los Angeles

What are role playing games but stories that we make up together?

This is just one of the themes of She Kills Monsters, currently playing at Loft Ensemble in Los Angeles. Written by Qui Nguyen, She Kills Monsters is one of the newer works that was classified as part of an emerging trend of “geek theatre” in American Theatre’s February 2014 issue. And while yes, role playing games are at the heart of this play, to say it’s ‘about’ RPGs would be like saying Macbeth is about Scottish history and control of the crown or that Wicked is about the Wizard of Oz (or even Elphaba). Like all well-written pieces, it actually is about so much more.

Tilly and Agnes are sisters, and like any stereotypical siblings, they have very little in common. Set in “the far away time” of 1995 in “the distant land of Ohio”, Agnes (the elder sister, played by Bree Pavey) is into boys, pop music, and must-see TV. Meanwhile, Tilly (Lindsey Newell) is “that rarest of geeks: a girl geek”, into such ‘odd’ behavior as learning how to reanimate dead lizards, listening to punk music, and, of course, playing Dungeons & Dragons. This would be the perfect set up for a sitcom on Syfy, until Tilly and the rest of Agnes’s family are killed in a car wreck.

While attempting to clean out Tilly’s apartment, Agnes finds a module for D&D written by Tilly. She goes to the local game shop, and gets high school student Chuck (played by the ‘pretty obviously older than a high school student’ Jared Wilson) to not only teach her about D&D, but to be the dungeon master for this one last adventure of Tilly’s.

The rest of the play is Agnes immersing herself in Tilly’s world, “not for therapy” she’s quick to protest, but to attempt to learn more about her sister. She discovers that Tilly was not only bullied by the stereotypical evil cheerleaders/mean girls, but she had a small (but loyal) group of friends and also was a closeted lesbian.

There are the requisite D&D jokes/homages with a green gelatinous cube and an eye of the beholder, the typical misunderstanding of the phrase role play (and dungeon) by Agnes’s boyfriend Miles (Raymond Donahey) and her good friend Vera (Lacy Altwine), and even an end battle with the five-headed dragon Tiamat. But it also plays with RPG tropes: the overlord of the underworld, Orcus (Tor Jensen Brown), is a slacker who we first see singing along with the theme from Friends (he even does a little hand clap) and doesn’t want to join the campaign because he’d be missing Quantum Leap. The fairy they run across (played by April Morrow) is basically an embodiment of Tara Strong at her cutest voice being her vilest (“just because I’m pretty doesn’t mean I won’t f-ck you the f-ck up,” she says). And since it’s set in the mid-90s, it’s so retro, it’s hilarious.

The cast of Loft Ensemble's "She Kills Monsters"
The cast of Loft Ensemble’s “She Kills Monsters”. Photo courtesy Ryan Johnson Photography

However, it’s very hard for me to give any kind of unemotionally biased review of this play. So much of it resonates with me on so many levels. As someone who grew up a girl geek in the mid-80s, I recognized much of myself in Tilly. I, too, had my share of popular people pretending to be my friend or asking me out only to mock me when I said ‘yes’. I, too, knew what it was like to have just a small group of friends that I could talk to about my geeky interests in science fiction and fantasy.

But while I tried getting into RPGs (the writer in me finds the concept fascinating), I never quite managed to figure it out. (RPG-based video games, however, are one of my many outlets.) My husband and many of my friends role play – including one who committed suicide several years ago. This show made me wonder whether when I was helping clean out his place right after he died, had I found a D&D campaign of his, would I have played it? I’m still not quite sure.

Pavey is excellent as Agnes, and all of the cast are good overall. With a cast of 13, only 3 of which are men, it passes the Bechtel test with flying colors. The fight choreography (by Mike Mahaffey) is appropriately unbelievable, if that makes sense. The dragon, too, when finally battled is a brilliant use of puppetry that acknowledges the idea that we are in a role playing game. And while the play is overall filled with great comedic moments, the second act – at least for me – packs a huge emotional punch that had me near tears.

It’s only been recently that geeks and role playing games have become cool. We now have a web series where celebrities play board games, a popular sitcom where geeks are (relatively) more than just the stereotype, and even major motion pictures about live action role playing games that is basically an action movie.

But there’s still a ways to go. There’s still a lot of gatekeeping in the geek community, with cries of ‘fake geek girls’ and people not being ‘true fans’, that I personally believe stems from the fact that so many of us fought long and hard to finally find acceptance, not only with society, but with ourselves.

In the end, She Kills Monsters is about how our lives are a series of stories, and we are all on a quest or two. Those of us who game – whether it’s through D&D, World of Warcraft, or Settlers of Catan – may be looking for an escape, but it’s for all the best reasons. As the song “Rich Fantasy Lives”, written by Rob Balder and Tom Smith, states, “We’re piling up fears, but we’re out of frontiers. Some need to escape, but there’s nowhere. Can’t go to the moon, at least any time soon, but an inner-space trip costs you no fare.”

She Kills Monsters is playing at the Loft Ensemble in Los Angeles until May 3. There were far too many empty seats when I went for such a great play, so if you’re in LA, check it out. And if you’re not in LA, harangue your favorite local theatre to put this play on. For more information about this production, visit the Loft Ensemble’s website.

You can see more of Angie’s writing at her website.

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Angie Fiedler Sutton

Angie Fiedler Sutton is a writer, photographer, and all-round fangirl geek. She currently lives in Los Angeles, and primarily covers geek culture, entertainment, and the performing arts. She's been published in Den of Geek, Stage Directions, LA Weekly, The Mary Sue, and others. You can see more of her work (and her social media connections) over at her website angiefsutton.com.

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