THE BASICS: SHE KILLS MONSTERS, a play by Qui Nguyen presented by Subversive Theatre, directed by Drew McCabe, starring Emily Yancey and Jamie Nablo, runs through November 16, Thursdays through Saturdays at 7:30 p.m., at 5 at The Manny Fried Playhouse, 255 Great Arrow Ave., third floor (462-5549). www.subversivetheatre.org Runtime: 1-hour, 40 minutes without intermission
THUMBNAIL SKETCH: Twenty-four-year-old Agnes Evans is now a teacher in the same Ohio public high school that her sister Tilly, younger by eight years, attended until her recent death in a car crash. Cleaning out Tilly’s room, Agnes finds Tilly’s Dungeons & Dragons notebook, and with a desire to understand the annoying kid sister she now regrets having ignored all those years, Agnes clumsily enters the game that was Tilly’s refuge from the trauma that is high school. But Agnes, who just lost her mother, father, and sister in that accident, has some trauma of her own. As the Subversive website informs us, Mr. Nguyen “is an Arkansas-born Vietnamese-American and the co-founder of NYC’s Vampire Cowboys Theatre presenting intensely fight-oriented plays that bring together pop culture themes with burning social issues.” Yup. True. All of it. But there’s so much more. It’s sweet and funny and touching.
THE PLAYERS, THE PLAY, AND THE PRODUCTION: I’ve been looking forward to this play for months because of its experienced cast overall and in particular the two principals – Emily Yancey (who plays Agnes) and Jamie Nablo (Tilly) – actors who were so outstanding and brave in the Alleyway’s recent production of GIRLS WHO WALKED ON GLASS.
Those two are surrounded by a skilled cadre of actors including David Moran with his great comic timing as Chuck, the doughy high schooler who would like to be more sexually experienced, but until that happens he sells comic books, acts as the D&D games “Dungeon Master,” and is Agnes’s guide to the game her baby sister loved. Agnes’s boyfriend of the past “two years and 18 months” who has yet to propose, Miles, is played by Ryan Kaminski. And inhabiting the D&D world are Jaimee Harmon as the Narrator and evil cheerleader Tina, Sofia Matlasz as Lilith, Stefanie Warnick as ass-kicking Kaliope, Rick Lattimer as Orcus, the stoner ruler of the underworld, Bekki Sliwa as Stevie, and Mara Westerling-Morris as evil cheerleader Gabbi but also as Vera the “real life” friend of Agnes and the high school guidance counselor. (Note: the scenes in her office are worth the price of admission alone).
My fear is that you, dear reader, might miss this play, dismissing it, as I did, as “just some sort of silly sword and sorcery crap.” That would be a huge mistake.
My fear is that you, dear reader, might miss this play, dismissing it, as I did, as ‘just some sort of silly sword and sorcery crap.’
It’s a wonderful play, with some strong messages yet at the same time being really funny, and this production is skillfully directed, with a rock-solid team of actors, crisp entrances and exits and cues (thanks in part to Alley Griffin, Katherine Parker, and Michael Doben) and all sorts of little special surprises, including SFX and music (Alley Griffin and Drew McCabe), dance choreography (Jenny Marie McCabe), fight choreography (Jessica Stuber), costumes (Brenna Prather), masks (Drew McCabe), monsters (Gail Argetsinger) and a fabulous five-headed dragon (“The Tiamat”) created by famed local puppeteer Michele Costa.
You do NOT have to know anything about Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) to enjoy SHE KILLS MONSTERS. Any “special” knowledge is provided by the characters themselves or the Narrator. And, yes, on stage we do see dragons and monsters, swords and battle axes, in other words the “outward” side of the game. But just as we’ve seen plays and movies about poker, or pool, or basketball, or football games, the minutiae, the rules and roles, and what the players do at the table or on the field give all these plays some structure and context, but in the end, as with every work of art, if it’s going to be a great work of art, it’s going to be about love.
So, while any game, or any play about any game, will reveal the personalities, strengths and weaknesses, quirks, and foibles of the players and those around them, what makes this play different is that the very reason to play D&D, as I understand it, is to explore, in a safe place, who you are and what you might like to be by creating your D&D character and launching him or her (and you get to choose) into the game.
While anyone of any age can play D&D, isn’t trying on different personalities and styles what being 16 years old is all about? Or at least what adolescence is supposed to be all about until real-world problems like bullying, stereotyping, assigned gender roles, homophobia slam their fists on the gaming table and send all the pieces flying.
So that’s the cleverness of playwright Nguyen (say “new-yen”). Yes, it’s about all that sword and sorcery stuff, but people play it to reveal sides of themselves in a safe, nurturing environment, surrounded by friends which is just what Tilly needed.
Again, you do NOT have to know anything about Dungeons & Dragons to enjoy the play; however, here is a very well-produced and entertaining 10-minute video from which I excerpted the following bits: “D&D is a table-top, role-playing fantasy game that takes place entirely in the players’ minds. The goal is not to ‘win,’ and is definitely not to beat your fellow players, as in most other games, but to work with them. It all starts with creating your own hero. Using the D&D handbook you pick a race (e.g. human or elf or dwarf) and a class (your ‘job’ e.g. fighter or wizard) and then you fill out a character sheet that keeps track of what you look like, your strengths and weaknesses, weapons, etc. The game has three basic steps – Describe, Decide, Roll the Die, then repeat. The DM (Dungeon Master) describes the situation, a player decides what she wants to do, and then she rolls the 20-sided die to see how successful she was. Unlike most games where your actions are tightly constrained and there’s only one goal, in D&D no individual decides where the story goes. D&D gives you permission to be different and allows you to explore who you are, not alone, but together with a supportive group of fellow players. Some of the players at the end of the video said that D&D lets you bring your weirdness and creativity to the table, to know that ‘There’s more to us than what meets the eye’ and ‘The older that you get, the more people have expectations of you. In D&D, there are no expectations. I can just be free’ and ‘If you look past the wizards, past the dungeons and magical creatures, D&D is a game about the people that you play with’.”
So don’t pass on this wonderful play and production because it seems a little outside the box. It was truly superb. Funny and touching with a great message.
UP NEXT: MERCURY FUR by Phillip Ridley, a dystopian post-apocalyptic odyssey, runs January 17 through February 8, 2020.
*HERD OF BUFFALO (Notes on the Rating System)
ONE BUFFALO: This means trouble. A dreadful play, a highly flawed production, or both. Unless there is some really compelling reason for you to attend (i.e. you are the parent of someone who is in it), give this show a wide berth.
TWO BUFFALOS: Passable, but no great shakes. Either the production is pretty far off base, or the play itself is problematic. Unless you are the sort of person who’s happy just going to the theater, you might look around for something else.
THREE BUFFALOS: I still have my issues, but this is a pretty darn good night at the theater. If you don’t go in with huge expectations, you will probably be pleased.
FOUR BUFFALOS: Both the production and the play are of high caliber. If the genre/content are up your alley, I would make a real effort to attend.
FIVE BUFFALOS: Truly superb–a rare rating. Comedies that leave you weak with laughter, dramas that really touch the heart. Provided that this is the kind of show you like, you’d be a fool to miss it!