Review: In ‘She Kills Monsters,’ a fanciful quest and an emotional journey
What do you call a director (and creative team) who selects a show that requires — gulp — a dragon?
Probably a little crazy. But in a good way.
In terms of technical challenges, the Fresno City College production of “She Kills Monsters” calls for a lot more than just a dragon. Bugbears, Kobalds and Grungers are all in the mix. So is an entire fantasy world that includes a very steep mountain, glamorous elves, monsters disguised as gelatinous cubes, and a raggedly voiced, retired demon who’d rather watch reruns of “Friends” than suck souls from the unsuspecting. There are wild battles involving swords and dancing to ‘90s tunes. And there’s a bunch of “real world” scenes to stage, too.
But probably the biggest challenge is using the popular ‘90s game Dungeons & Dragons as a key part of the narrative without alienating hardcore fans of D&D while keeping the rest of us reasonably connected to the material.
Director Adam Meredith and his hard-working, enthusiastic cast do a nice job of accomplishing that goal. The resulting production is energetic and moving, although playwright Qui Nguyen’s script can be uneven. And Meredith has a hard time blending the various tones of the show — which wobble between big-hearted, sharply satirical, goofy, poignant and just plain weird — into a cohesive whole.
Some more thoughts on the show, which continues through Saturday:
The storyline: It’s poignant. Agnes Evans (played by Marikah Leal), a 24-year-old high school English teacher, has lost her younger sister, Tilly (Olivia Stemler), in a car accident. When the grieving Agnes finds a Dungeons & Dragons “module” written by Tilly — an adventure of her own within the parameters of the game — she seeks out a D&D expert at her school, a gregarious guy named Chuck Biggs (Andrew Pereida), to lead her through her sister’s game by acting as her Dungeon Master.
The D&D terminology: Sure, it’s thicker than an oil spill on the River Dessarin. (OK, I have no idea if that’s a legit reference. I just Googled “D&D and river,” and that’s what came up. It shows where I’m coming from in terms of Gary Gygax’s influence on my life.) But if you’re like me, it doesn’t matter if you get all the references to hit points and various kinds of monsters. The narrative of Agnes’ quest isn’t what’s important. Her emotional journey is.
The acting highlights: Leal is wonderful in the leading role. She brings to Agnes a detached brusqueness that doesn’t encourage an instant bond with the audience. Her character isn’t swamped by grief (at least outwardly) but has formed a crusty shell of protection. I like how she’s slowly able to scrape away at that standoffishness as we get to know her better. Biggs, as Chuck, brings a peppy, vivacious flair to his role as Dungeon Master. Sean Stoll, as the aforementioned retired demon, is a standout, offering crisp comic timing and a voice so gravelly you want to hose it down to keep the dust at bay. Alexis Macedo and Shelby Plaugher have some nice moments as fantasy sidekicks.
The costumes and makeup: Inventive, clever, revealing, ingenious — all are words to describe the work of James Laurence Ramos, a City College student. (I also like that Agnes remains in the same rather staid, conventional costume throughout, a nice contrast to the over-the-top garments — and that gelatinous cube! — around her.) And Kodai Wakley (another student) does some great things with the makeup design.
The lighting design: Christina McCollam-Martinez and Chris Lang get wild, with all the creepy effects and vivid colors you’d expect. Very fun stuff. And Austin Dozier’s projections, which incorporate pithy bits of text into the mix, add a slick feel to the production.
The direction: The acting is often so broad — verging into slapstick — that it can seem as if the play is mocking D&D, not celebrating it. Sometimes, frankly, things get a little too screechy in the fantasy scenes. The overacting spills over into the non-fantasy portions as well. (A couple of scenes in a guidance counselor’s office are prime offenders.)
The head-scratchers (could be spoilers): Agnes starts to learn more about her deceased sister through the game she designed. But I wasn’t always able to track what the playwright was trying for here. Why, during the game, does Tilly suggest that Agnes’ boyfriend “touched” her inappropriately? Is that something that has bubbled up from Agnes’ subconscious? Is it just Chuck, as the Dungeon Master, trying to be ribald? Or did Tilly reveal this in her writing? (And if she did, why is the whole matter brushed off with a laugh?) Why, too, does the boyfriend-like character repeatedly hit Agnes? The play touches on lots of important issues, including bullying, LGBT sensitivity, etc. Is it also trying to make a point about physical abuse? Finally, I don’t think the role-playing in the game is meant to be taken literally in the sense that Agnes is out there physically climbing a mountain and fighting goblins. And we aren’t meant to believe that Tilly has come back from the dead and is really interacting with her sister. What makes the premise so much more poignant is that Agnes is using her imagination (and the guidance of a new friend), along with her sister’s words, to make her emotional discoveries. Yet there are times when the narrative veers off into literal mode. I don’t know if the playwright always followed her own rules. Maybe I’m being way too much of a stickler about this, but in the end, I wasn’t convinced that the play is able to maintain its own internal consistencies.
The takeaway: Obviously, “She Kills Monsters” got me thinking a lot, which is a very good thing. While occasionally rough (and sometimes bewildering), the production is whimsical, fast-paced and wonderfully crafted. And it has a dragon. (And that dragon found a parking space at FCC!) You don’t want to miss that.