I first encountered She Kills Monsters by Qui Nguyen when a friend of mine was auditioning for one of the parts in the play. I read sides with her to help her prepare for the audition and from that, I was able to see snip-its of the script. Even from these short excerpts, I could tell that the play was a gamer’s dream. She ended up not getting a part, but we were both curious to see what this play was like in performance. So, we walked into the BCA Plaza this past Sunday very excited. However, not being a “gamer” myself, I also did not know what to expect.
Conversely, within the first five minutes of the play, I knew that I was going to have a blast. I wasn’t alone: self-proclaimed gamer or non-gamer, every audience member seemed to be hooked to She Kills Monsters instantly. How can you not when a woman in a cloak begins to epically introduce the tale of Agnes and her sister Tilly in a grandiose RP accent sprinkled with contemporary idioms like “Agnes the AssHatted”? Then, when Tilly came out looking like a badass wearing armor and holding a huge sword, I was officially locked in. I immediately wanted to be her. A multi-racial female lead who is strong, brave, and sexy… how often do I see that? I have so often seen a version of He Kills Monsters. It’s about time for SHE Kills Monsters.
From beginning to end, the play has you in stitches. The dialogue itself is comedic in the way the characters speak to each other, but I would say most of the laughs come from all of the pop culture references. As noted in a previous post, I love pop culture so I found this to be especially enjoyable. And, as I learned more about Vampire Cowboys, the theatre company that Nguyen is the Co-Artistic Director of and one that prides itself on being “for the people”, I actually came to see the use of pop culture as a really powerful theatrical tool. There is nothing like the mention of some band, phrase, TV show, movie, etc. from an earlier time that can make an audience instantly bond as they chuckle to one another and think “oh, remember that?!”
But, don’t think that She Kills Monsters is some fluffy, pointless show about Dungeons & Dragons. The underbelly of the show is quite dark and very present.
In an interview with Nguyen in the show’s program, he describes his earlier work in grad school and his transition to making his own work with Robert Parker (co-Artistic Director at Vampire Cowboys) outside of school. He says that his professors thought that his work was “cute” but not worth pursuing. Even with SKM, I do still very much see the playful, youthful aspect to the work – it looks like something my peers would have created for a class project at BU. However, just like when a 13-year-old boy plays D&D, the freedom to fully play in stories not our own allows the freedom to reveal deep truths in stories that are our own.
When the characters of the Evil Cheerleaders were introduced, I immediately knew who they were… and I felt it viscerally in my gut. It was actually really interesting to be around some audience members who were laughing at the cheerleaders for doing all the stereotypical cheerleader things and notice that I was not laughing at all. I knew that they were no good and that they were going to hurt the characters that I grew very fond of. Once my prediction came true, Tilly and Julie became one in the same as I remembered my own experiences of bullying growing up. The reason that occurred was not because of useless play, but because of courageous, imaginative writing and performing. As my movement teacher at BU, Judith Chaffee, once said, “theatre is not larger than life; theatre is as large as life.” I also appreciated the use of the D&D game as a way for Tilly to safely be her true sexual self when the real world was not so accepting. It makes games like D&D look more like a saving grace than just child’s play. In addition, it makes one hope that, one day, people won’t need fantasy worlds to feel accepted for who they truly are.
The only moment of the play where the writing took me out of the story was the ending when the characters describe “life as just a bunch of stories”. I found it to be a bit cliché. I thought the play spoke for itself and didn’t need that extra bit. However, while reading the program notes, I smiled to myself to see that Qui is totally aware of his “super cheese ball ending”. Later, as I thought more about it, I grew to not mind it so much because it stays true to how games like that end – a bit cheesy and a bit over the top, but that’s-why-you-love-it kind of thing. In this same vein, I was at first turned-off by the set and costumes (Eric D. Diaz and Miranda Giurleo); it looked like some of the costumes could fall apart at any moment and that the sets were a bit crafty compared to some sleeker, more well-made sets I had seen at Company One in the past. As the play went on though, I grew to like it because it very much reflected the improvised nature of playing pretend. It’s the cardboard box that becomes the spaceship. It’s the graduation robe that becomes a cloak. For example, an actor at our performance pulled down a map from the ceiling too hard and the whole map fell down. The actors just picked it back up and went with it, just like you do if you’re on a pretend space mission and the cardboard box breaks. You don’t stop, you keep going! Plus, it only added to the hilarity.
The fight choreography done by Robert Najarian was a really exciting aspect to the show as well. The scenes were elaborate with many people fighting and moving at once, which fed the story’s momentum. The sound design (Aaron Mack) also fed that momentum using classic, but still very effective Mortal Kombat-type music to pump us all up. Plus, it was just pure fun to root for characters to defeat puppet dragons. However, sometimes the actors were a bit inaccurate with the moves and certain moments would not “pop” successfully. Again, as with the costumes and sets, I did not mind this because of the playful aspect of it – it did not need to be perfect to work. On the other hand, I was concerned for the front row of audience members at points in the show. The space was a bit tight for the amount of movement and the amount of people wielding large weapons. There were a few moments I noticed audience members who were flinching and scared to get hit and not in a playful way.
All the actors were perfectly cast. Each character that Nguyen created was very bold and unique so it was a pleasure to see a wide range of actors on stage. It also didn’t hurt that real-life sisters played the sisters (Paige and Jordan Clark); the bond between them was real and very readable. The actor who played the character of Chuck Biggs, Mike Handelman, was especially memorable as the goofy, but wise DM of the D&D game. My one critique is that I found some of the performances to be a little too self-aware of the audience; I could feel the actor behind the character knowing that they were funny. It was never distracting though, and I knew it was part of the atmosphere.
All in all, I really can’t say anything bad about this production because I was too busy having fun.
The one major thing I felt once I had left the theatre on Sunday is that I so wished I could see this show with my big brother. During the very enlightening post-show Skype session with Nguyen, I actually saw a lot of my brother in the playwright. Nguyen described how he was the only Asian kid in his town and that playing D&D with his real-life friend Chuck (who was the only white kid in his town) was a way for them to safely express themselves during their tumultuous adolescence. My brother was the only half-white, half-Asian kid growing up. Looking back on it now, all those afternoons and nights playing video games with his “geeky” group of friends was probably what got him through elementary and middle school. Qui also said that his attraction to these kinds of stories is that they’re “epic”. “It’s about reaching for something waaay larger than yourself”, he says. Putting it that way, I realized that all these years, my brother and I are not so different after all. He likes to play awesome characters in epic stories in video games. I like to play awesome characters in epic stories on stage.
My brother does not see a lot of theatre, but I told him about Vampire Cowboys and I hope to see more of Nguyen’s work with him when we are both in the NYC area.
Go see She Kills Monsters!