By Eva Phillips
Dungeons and Dragons (D&D, colloquially) has achieved and maintained a level of popularity, notoriety and infamy since its creation in 1974 that is just as grandiose as the magical worlds, stories, and characters that the role-playing strategy game encompasses. The game stands as emblematic for a certain type of subculture: gamer nerds; fantastically-inclined misfits who could rattle off every species, phylum, etc. of a completely confabulated breed of creature or ranks of a wizarding class; kids who would get trampled and implicated in hysteria-fueled moral panics citing Satanism and accusations of violent psychopathy by (usually) parents or teachers who refused to understand difference. But most importantly, and unsurprisingly, the world and popular conception/mythos of D&D is almost exclusively populated by men (or, more accurately, boys and dudes).
Qui Nguyen’s ingenious 2011 dramatic comedy, She Kills Monsters, presents the story and voice—albeit indirectly and unconventionally—of one of those gamers so frequently underrepresented in D&D gameplay and conversations surrounding the game—a teenage girl. Except the teenage girl in She Kills Monsters, Tilly Evans, is—no spoilers, to be clear—dead for the majority of the play (not D&D dead, but tragically IRL dead, perishing in the first few moments of the play with her parents in a car crash). The world and actualized self that Tilly created in the depths of D&D lore must be discovered by her outstandingly average older sister, Agnes. Having wished that her categorically average life teaching at a very average school, in a very average relationship with her longtime boyfriend, Miles, would be somehow less boring, Tilly unwittingly thrusts herself into the world of mages, demons, succubi, etc., with the help of Chuck, one of Tilly’s D&D/IRL pals, to learn more about the sister who was hidden and lost.
Theatre Factory’s current adaptation of Nguyen’s award-winning play takes the refreshing, and poignantly relatable, boldness of the source material several steps further in subtly provocative choices that help make the show curiously and undeniably irresistible. As the latest show engineered for older audiences in Theatre Factory’s characteristically eclectic 25th season—that will conclude with the agonizing and stirring Doubt, and the irreverent Sondheim/Lapine powerhouse, Into the Woods—She Kills Monsters, from a functional/technical perspective, prevails yet again in many ways that delightfully upend expectations for a theatre of their size.
What strikes you first and most consistently about Matt Mlynarski’s superbly directed She Kills Monsters is the scenic feast that manages to be both charmingly folksy and fantastically opulent all at once. In this way, Sarah Bender’s excellent work on set design and scenic art, Bekah Little and Mlynarski’s artful labors in the design and construction of the show’s puppets, Little and Mlynarski’s thoughtful costume work, and the various talents involved in the meticulous set construction (Mlynarski, Little, Sue Kurey, Frankie Shoup, Beth Minda) and painting (Emma Flickenger, Amelia Bender) are integral to the success and impact of the show. Their work conveys a world that is majestic and whimsical, but at the same time intimate, and ever-connected to the minds and lives of the people living in Athens, Ohio that the show centers around.
Theatre Factory’s production, though, is very much an actor-driven show, and Mlynarski’s cast is replete with theatre-world familiars giving absolutely killer performances (excuse that heavy-handed pun, if you please). The stellar supporting cast of She Kills Monsters lays a strong foundation for the story, whether it’s the plucky resilience of Devin Marshall as Steve, a classmate of Tilly’s who routinely meets grisly deaths in the D&D world; the thrilling maliciousness of Elise Brado and Kaitlin Cliber as (Evil) Gabbi and (Evil) Tina, who Tilly renders monstrous in the D&D world to cope with bullying and alienation in the real world; the endearing vexation of Zach Metkler as Agnes’s boyfriend Miles; or the always-delightful versatility of Katie Kerr Springer, playing the Cate-Blanchett-inspired narrator, Farrah and Agnes’s best friend, Vera.
Inhabiting and truly animating the various members of Tilly’s D&D squad is a mettlesome and engaging foursome. Recent Food for Groundlings’ standout Brendan Karras is unstoppably hilarious and charismatic as doofy soul-snatcher Orcas; Theatre Factory alum Brandon Farneth imbues lovable, frantic gusto to dungeon-master Chuck; Kaylyn Farneth provides wonderful comedic precision as the hot, blunt elf lord Kaliope; and Betsy Novotny, who never fails to be a marvelous surprise whenever she pops up in a show, is excellent as the dominatrix Lilith (whose naming is one of the myriad treasures in Nguyen’s clever script).
There should be a deluge of praise for the performances given by Randi Walker and Kiah Harrington-Wymer, who star as Agnes and Tilly Evans, respectively. Harrington-Wymer deftly and expertly portrays all of Tilly’s complexities—those that were inherent to her, and those that are projected onto to her by Chuck or Agnes as they navigate the D&D legacy she leaves behind. Her Tilly is fierce and petrified, ostentatiously creative yet painfully a vulnerable, frustrated teen, and Harrington-Wymer sensitively and effectively demonstrates the fragile cleverness of a girl who uses a male-dominated fantasy world to articulate fears of loneliness and belonging, and declarations of self. Walker, who has captured much-deserved attention in every production she graces, is the perfect choice to play the heart of She Kills Monsters, as her balance of agilely-timed wit and achingly relatable perplexed anger is ideal to bring Agnes’s unusual story of sisterly bonding to life. Moreover, Harrington-Wymer and Walker complement one other in such a way that the play’s already heartrending conclusion is all the more impactful.
Theatre Factory’s take on She Kills Monsters is an expectation-defying joy to watch; and seeing not only women, but non-white and non-straight voices and identities highlighted and reclaiming stereotypically-male-dominated spaces with such magnificent results is a moment of delightful empowerment. So, don’t be nerd and miss out.
She Kills Monsters runs through March 8th at the Theatre Factory. For more information, visit their homepage.
Categories: Archived Reviews