Stepping onto the stage to take my seat for the regional premiere of She Kills Monsters, I marveled at the workings. The wings, the catwalks, everything is visible. At the show’s opening, the entire audience was able to sit up there, on the very boards, and enjoy the action inches from their faces in this “alley” presentation of Qui Nguyen’s touching, silly and epically referential tale. Combining the unusual staging with Nguyen’s off-kilter storytelling and the dual worlds of Athens and Newlandia provides an atmosphere of wonder.
She Kills Monsters is the story of 25 year-old Athens, Ohio schoolteacher Agnes Evans (Amanda Meador). Agnes has lost her whole family in a car accident, and discovers a special notebook belonging to her sister, Tilly (Sara Gaddis), which contains a home-brewed Dungeons and Dragons module.
Yup, this play is about geeks. Not entirely, mind you, but mostly. And while far from comprehensive, the love of nerdery forms a foundation which upholds the play’s shakier elements. The gaming element is approached in a way that welcomes “mundanes” and leads experts to scratch their heads just a little, while both anchoring and expanding the tale.
Agnes never really connected with her sibling, whose love of fantasy and myth set her in a world apart. In the wake of tragedy, and as she prepares to move in with long-time boyfriend Miles (Conway Preston), Agnes begins to pack up Tilly’s room, finding the notebook and beginning her quest.
In the effort to discover her sister, Agnes seeks out Tilly’s dungeon master, Ronnie (Diego Gomez) and ventures into the notebook, a world and adventure Tilly created. She meets her allies, Lilith (Kara McLeland), Kaliope (Cassie Hamilton) and Orcus the demon (also Gomez) and begins the quest to free the Ghost of Athens. The wonders and foes Agnes encounters as are drawn from her sister’s life, and teach the survivor much about Tilly’s life and struggles.
The play addresses some of the most topical issues of our time, many of which are even more troublesome for geeks. Homosexuality, bullying and disenfranchisement are major problems for teens today, and She Kills Monsters shines a touching light on them. It also addresses wish fulfillment, which is the root of all fiction. What seems to most a wasteful and downright strange pastime is exposed for what it truly is: a way to tell stories that touch our souls. Not so different from theater is it?
The play’s not perfect. Too many ’90s references take audiences to that place and time, provided it is familiar. Even if familiar, it’s not necessarily welcome and may estrange some theater lovers. What’s more, it’s not a requisite to the story.
There’s a lot (and I mean a LOT) of fighting. Some battles were obviously chosen as the core, and they’re brilliant. To have so much happening right before is most impressive, but not all of the actors are fully prepared. I know from experience how challenging stage combat is, and this show goes even further: numerous weapons and styles combine with hand-to-hand and all-out melees. Everyone fights, from the high school cheerleaders and boyfriend Miles to Agnes herself, and it’s all happening within a foot of the front row.
Overall, the action doesn’t disappoint. The monsters are evocative and entertaining, and the costumes are just great. What really makes the show is the acting, which is as it should be.
Sideshow @ Actors Bridge has assembled some of the best talent I have ever had the pleasure to watch. Meador’s Agnes is a little pinched and a little scared, portrayed with alternating confusion and wonder; Gomez is so full of excitement and charm, so very much where he belongs. But the star of the show is really dead sister Tilly, given Gaddis’ all-out effort to capture both the real girl and her fantasy persona. Tilly shares everything through her story, and Gaddis adopts the adventurer’s energetic certainty and the lost little girl’s sorrows like they were her own. Both natural and explosive, hers was the performance of a pro.
Geek or not, theatergoers will be enchanted by She Kills Monsters. Congratulations to the cast: you all gain 100,000 experience points for giving this very real Dungeon Master inspiration to take my game to the next level.
She Kills Monsters runs through Sunday at Nashville Children’s Theatre, 25 Middleton St. Shows start at 8 p.m. today-Saturday and 4 p.m. Sunday. Tickets are $20 or $10 plus the roll of a 20-sided die to “gamble like a gamer.” Visit sideshowkillsmonsters.eventbrite.com for online ticket purchases.
*Photo courtesy Sideshow @ Actors Bridge.