Aidan Kash, Sadie Lawrence, Makayla Roth, & Alexandra Polur Gold. Photo: Sarah Davis Photography
She Kills Monsters
By Qui Nguyen
Directed by Heather Burns
Review by Keith Waits
Entire contents are copyright © 2019 Keith Waits. All rights reserved.
Role-Playing Games (RPG) have been tied to the downfall of American society on a regular basis, but in Qui Nguyen’s She Kills Monsters they become a tool for coping with grief and unexpected loss.
Before her death with her parents in an automobile accident, Tilly (Sadie Lawrence) was a dedicated player of Dungeons & Dragons (D&D), not a computer or on-line update, but the original old school dice-rolling table game that became popular in the 1970s.
Her older sister Agnes (Alexandra Polur Gold) is teaching at Tilly’s high school and runs across her sister’s D&D notebook. She badgers one of Tilly’s schoolmates, Chuck (Roscoe Lindsay-Bruns) to DM (Dungeon Master) the game in Tilly’s notebook so she can learn why it was so important to Tilly.
Once they begin, the play steps wholeheartedly into fantasy, actualizing the role-playing characters onstage like virtual reality. It is quite a leap from the mundane realities of sitting around a table eating pizza and drinking soda, but it is the essential conceit that allows Agnes and the audience to discover who Tilly really was.
It is interesting that Nguyen overlooks Agnes’ feelings about the loss of her parents, but it points to the specific aspects of grief over losing someone so young, and a sibling to boot. It is a characteristic of youth that we take too much for granted, and Agnes must have imagined she had all the time in the world to deepen the relationship with her sister. Such ideas are thoughtfully explored in director Heather Burn’s handling of the characters. There are surprising revelations about Tllly and her relationships with her D&D party members, Kaliope/Kelly (Aidan Kash), Lillith/Lilly (Makayla Roth), and Orcus/Ronnie (William Ngong), that speak to the importance of cultural activities in which one can assume identities that are a stark contrast to our limited reality.
Ms. Polur Gold and Ms. Lawrence are both high school seniors, but they do a good job of establishing the age range demanded by the story, Agnes a young professional and Tilly a teenager struggling to find her identity.
Among Tilly’s friends, Makayla Roth sensitively finds well-judged moments of pathos in Lilly, while being a brazen ax-wielding fighter as her D&D alter ego, Lillith. William Ngong’s easy, deadpan way with comedy is perfectly matched to Orcus, the demon who would rather join the party of lawful adventurers, and Aidan Kash is a fine Kaliope, resolute elf warrior in the game, and sharply different persona as Kelly when we meet her late in the play.
Demi Handley and Sarah Sheffer are a wicked delight as an Evil Pair in the game, and Natalie Koch has great fun with Farrah the Faerie, one those small but scene-stealing roles that must be a joy to play. Ms. Koch does not squander the opportunity. Killian Meaney is a strong presence as the game’s Narrator.
In Agnes’ real world, Jackson Guarino-Sanders does a fine job as her boyfriend, Miles, Ruby Osborne as a wry and caustic treat as her friend, Vera, the school’s guidance counselor, and Atticus Haden is a low-key scene-stealer as a younger student, Steve.
Where the production struggles is in the combat scenes. Although well choreographed by Eric Frantz, the movements are slow and sometimes felt awkward in their execution. Perhaps because rehearsal schedules did not allow time for it, and certainly out of necessary caution, the fighting never manages to feel risky and only occasionally expresses bravado. Nguyen is the Artistic Director of Vampire Cowboys Theatre Company in NYC, where this show premiered, and the combat is there staged with unnerving comic ferocity.
The production design is crafted with ingenuity, and every appearance of an iconic D&D monster – bugbears, a mind flayer, and a beholder are among the threatening creatures, is accurate and funnier than threatening, with a climactic battle wisely staged more as epic puppet theatre than violent death.
However much I longed for fiercer combat, the emotional themes of the play feel perfect for a young company like this. In her program notes, director Burns explains what the play offers, “Female empowerment, Badass combat, Fantasy, Celebration of pop culture,” and I would add, the necessity of building community wherever and however you can. Maybe it’s school, the theatre, or a friend’s basement every Saturday night for 5-6 hours of role-playing, Whatever it is, She Kills Monsters shows why it is vital.
She Kills Monsters
September 19, 20, 21, 26, 27, 28 @ 7:30 PM
September 21 & 28 @ 2:00 PM
Nancy Sexton Stage
Commonwealth Theatre Center
1123 Payne Street
Louisville, KY 40204
Keith Waits is a native of Louisville who works at Louisville Visual Art during the days, including being the host of LVA’s Artebella On The Radio on WXOX 97.1 FM / ARTxFM.com, but spends most of his evenings indulging his taste for theatre, music and visual arts. His work has appeared in LEO Weekly, Pure Uncut Candy, TheatreLouisville, and Louisville Mojo. He is now Managing Editor for Arts-Louisville.com.