THEATER REVIEW: At Selma Arts Center, ‘Monsters’ offers clever intersection between D&D and the real world
By Heather Parish
‘She Kills Monsters” is clearly an audience-pleaser. The script is funny and clever. The 1990s setting hits all the right nostalgia buttons, especially for those who were there. And the Nerds vs. Normies theme is a comfortable starting point for anyone who has watched teen comedies in the last . . . oh. . . 40 years.
Where “She Kills Monsters” (through Feb. 18 at the Selma Arts Center) sneaks up on you is in the grand exploration of our inner worlds, using Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) as a symbolic setting. It is a mix of teen fantasy and Greek epic. If you squint the right way, it is “The Divine Comedy” meets “Donnie Darko.”
Agnes (Aleah Rashel Muniz) is a middle-of-the-road 24-year-old teacher dealing with the aftermath of her family’s death by car accident. In the process of clearing out her family home, she discovers her “nerdy” younger sister Tilly’s (Liliana Morgan) D&D module, which is an adventure written for the D&D world but with specific scenarios, characters and rules – a sort of “choose your own adventure.”
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To assuage her guilt at not knowing her sister better, she finds a D&D Dungeon Master, Chuck (Rich Mua Kong Thao), to help her play the module. In doing so, Agnes discovers an unexpectedly rich world, including the secrets, desires, and many complex opinions of Tilly. The Tilly that Agnes barely knew as a moody teenager holed up in her room is transformed into a badass Paladin, complete with entourage, leadership skills and a penchant for storming castles. It all challenges Agnes’ assumptions – and comfort level – a little too much.
As Agnes, Muniz is sympathetic and bristles with pent-up grief. She admirably connects the dots from Agnes’ self-protective passivity to her vibrant D&D player. And Thao’s Dungeon Master Chuck is an appealing ball of energy, wholly embracing his character’s love of the D&D world.
Morgan’s Tilly, though, is the heart of the story. Her presence and confidence in the role are a pleasure to watch, especially given the range that the part requires. Morgan is also assisted by supporting actors and an ensemble fully committed to the world they inhabit. They’re clearly having fun up on that stage.
Claudio Laso’s direction excels in the energy of the fight choreography and the cohesiveness of the D&D world. Admirable efforts in terms of projections from Sami Moree Valles and puppetry designed by Kimberly Houston also help. Where the direction falters is in terms of some of the stagecraft elements. Scene transitions are cumbersome, and the actors need help to maintain the tension of the scene work while the scenes shift. This connective tissue is essential for keeping the forward propulsion of the story going.
That said, this production of “She Kills Monsters” is enjoyable, especially when digging into the craft of the story. Its 90 minutes seems light and breezy, but Qui Nguyen’s play is structured so that Tilly’s fantasy world converses with Agnes’ real world. Issues of bullying, alienation, homophobia and sexuality all rise to the surface. (I’d recommend the show for 15+ for language and sexual themes – FYI.)
By entering into a strange, new world of adventure, Agnes begins to turn off the judge in her brain and turns on the curious explorer, becoming the fearless protagonist of her own story.
And that’s something worth storming a castle for.
In the before-times, Heather Parish was the founding director of The New Ensemble Theater Group in Fresno and executive producer for Fresno’s Rogue Performance Festival. Since the dawn of the century, Heather has directed and produced dozens of independent theater and cosplay events in and around Fresno. She is now a recovering thespian and cheery misanthrope scribbling indie zines and defending to the death the importance of open and accessible libraries. Heather still believes that theater is one of the best means of living an examined life.