She Kills Monsters: A Critical Hit for Georgia Southern

She Kills Monsters
A Critical Hit For Georgia Southern

a review by Remley Farr

Early this week, I had the pleasure of returning to Georgia Southern University, my alma mater, to see the GSU Theatre and Performance production of Qui Nguyen’s She Kills Monsters, a stageplay set in a Dungeons and Dragons style world. The play itself cycles between fantasy melodrama and a grounded, real-world struggle between two protagonist sisters trying to understand each other through the one connection they share: a Dungeons and Dragons adventure.

The program synopsis says it best, “In She Kills Monsters, playwright Qui Nguyen boldly goes where generations of dungeon masters have gone before, to tell the story of a young woman who, in losing herself in a game, reclaims a long-gone loved one. Agnes is grieving over the loss of her 15-year-old sister, Tilly, in a car crash. Seeking to know the sister she has lost, Agnes enters Tilly’s fantasy world to discover more about her sister and the world she lived in Filled with sword fights and monsters and the odd gelatinous cube, this comedy will touch your heart and release your inner geek.”

 

THE PLAYER CHARACTERS

The actors in She Kills Monsters know exactly what type of show they’re in, and it’s apparent in the cast’s dedication to their characters. Without spoiling too much, all actors deserve solid recognition for their commitment to this physically-demanding show.

left to right: Tilly (Sade Thomas), Kaliope (Casey Sowers), Lilith (Hailey Wallace), Agnes (Kelsey Alexanria), and Orcus (Will Cox)

Leading ladies Sade Thomas as Tilly Evans and Kelsey Alexanria as Agnes Evans guide the audience through the tale as two focal points. Thomas flawlessly captures Tilly’s ecstatic yet heartwarming nature, and Alexanria effortlessly portrays Agnes’ transition from a grounded woman to a seasoned adventurer. Agnes’ ignorant-to-learned journey is a necessity for audience members who are unfamiliar with Dungeons & Dragons and need a straight character to learn the rules for them. The actresses excellently portray the sisters’ dichotomy, with each encounter increasing Agnes’ familiarity with her lost sister and the game’s rules.

Supporting the main characters are three other adventurers: Hailey Wallace is Lilith, a sultry demon queen who will either kiss you or devour you. Casey Sowers is Kaliope, an enlightened elf with a Shakespearean speech pattern. And Will Cox is Orcus, a demon lord who has traded his desire of capturing souls for a life of procrastination, cable TV, and comfy pajamas. Wallace’s ravenous attitude is apparent in her demeanor and combat style, swinging her weapons with ferocity while keeping a sensual yet dangerous swagger. Sowers’ is an elf player to the extreme, speaking with an airy dialogue reminiscent of a melodramatic D&D player who refuses to break character. As the token male, Cox keeps the audience entertained with crude jokes and a bum-like demeanor, being the official “that guy” and mischief maker of the adventuring party.

Carrying the bulk of stage presence are the minor characters and monsters. She Kills Monsters features kobolds, zombies, a lich, bugbears, and so many other Monster Manual entries that it’s a wonder the PC’s don’t hit level 20 by the end. I’m shocked that the actors playing the various “grunt” monsters aren’t in the hospital from all the hits and falls they take, which I can only attribute to their skills in stunt work. Notable encounters are Dominique Harris and Amanda Fausel as Evil Gabbi and Evil Tina, a pair of succubus cheerleaders, and Maciah Taylor as Steve the Mage, a character who rolls too many critical fails. All fight scenes are spectacular, but my personal favorite combat performance comes from Jane Hayes as Farrah the Fairy, which will leave the audience flinching and laughing in excitement, proving that cute and bubbly doesn’t always equal weak and puny. There was a slight hiccup where one of Hayes’ props became snagged in her costume, but her staying in character while Cox’s Orcus improvised a cheer at her “misfortune” kept the scene from losing any of its momentum while the actors quickly regained control.

Agnes discusses D&D with Chuck (David Jackson)
Agnes discusses D&D with Chuck (David Jackson)

Overseeing the adventure is David Jackson as Chuck, the Dungeon Master. An avid 90’s teen, Chuck’s nuances and social awkwardness help keep the magic of the adventure going. Even though Chuck is the ringleader for all of Agnes’ encounters in the game, good and bad, he also segues into a bit of an advisor to Agnes in the real world. Jackson’s endearingly goofy performance is nothing short of genuine, almost like that of a fairy godmother (though I would suggest avoiding all fairies in this adventure). A counter to him, though not as prominent, is Michelle Daly as the Narrator, a white-gowned, angelic apparition who welcomes the audience and sets the tone with sarcastic, tongue-in-cheek monologues delivered with the utmost pomp.

Keeping the play grounded in reality are Anna Ferguson-Salim as Vera and Joey Simon as Miles. Vera is Agnes’ sharp-tongued, practical, “just go with it” coworker, and Miles is Agnes’ boyfriend. Ferguson-Salim and Miles do well at helping drive the show when it’s not in its fantasy element. Even though audiences will come for the showmanship and fighting, the real world drama and criticism from Vera and Miles help pace the play out, and the performances from these rather “normal” characters don’t make the production drag. In fact, She Kills Monsters evolves into more than just a sword-and-sorcery play by having a deeper crossing of the worlds—I’ll remain vague on the details to avoid spoilers, but let’s just say that the fantasy world and the real world aren’t quite as separate as you think they are.

 

THE DM PREP

She Kills Monsters is very much a technical show. I’m sure it can be performed with limited light, sound, and costumes, but the fanfare of effects are such a key feature in GSU’s performance that I can’t imagine the show being done in a more subdued manner.

To understand how the show was put together, I spoke with several production members prior to the screening. One of my former directors, Lisa Abbott, introduced me to the key people involved in the show. Perhaps the most entertaining were fight choreographers Jake Guinn and Caitlyn Larsen.

Guinn and Larsen are members of the Society of American Fight Directors, with Guinn being the youngest certified teacher in the society’s history. Based in Atlanta, the experienced stage and film choreographers were brought in to train the cast for the near endless amount of fighting involved in the show. When asked how they knew about the show, Guinn surprised me when he said that the author, Qui Nguyen, babysat him back when Nguyen was taking classes at Louisiana Tech. Guinn and Larsen both served as advisors for the show in terms of prop weapons to use, and according to Sade Thomas, the duo ensured that safety was a huge priority with the students. When asked about any injuries, Thomas stated that there haven’t been any serious ones due to Guinn’s and Larsen’s training. Thomas described the process as lots of jogging and stretching, then basic techniques such as falls and strikes, and only after seriously grinding out the basics were they allowed weapons and heavier techniques. Safety first in the real world—there are no revive spells out here!

Agnes squares off against Tiamat.
Agnes squares off against an iconic D&D villain, Tiamat.

A show about Dungeons & Dragons would be incomplete without dragons, and it just so happens that this play has one of the most famous dragons in D&D lore: Tiamat. The evil queen of the chromatic dragons, Tiamat is the dreaded final encounter, built up to be Agnes’ ultimate challenge. I managed to sit down with GSU sophomore Quincee Mundy, the dragon designer of the show. A student in stagecraft and Vectorworks, Mundy’s design for Tiamat is reminiscent of design styles found in the stage versions Warhorse and The Lion King, opting for a design that’s more abstract in form as opposed to the realistic puppets seen in shows such as Little Shop of Horrors. Mundy designed the Tiamat heads out of plastic trash cans and papier-mâché, with the framework visible to show off the mechanics and actors operating the puppets. Mundy knew that D&D enthusiasts like myself would be critical of one of the genre’s most famous villains, making sure that the dragons’ heads and colors matched the appropriate chromatic heads from the game.

The director of the show, Nicholas Newell, has been part of the Georgia Southern team since fall of 2013, directing his first show there in January 2014. Not an initial fanatic for tabletop games, Newell was drawn to She Kills Monsters due to its high volume of stage combat, which is a challenge he has always wanted to tackle. He met up with the two fight choreographers, and the show exploded from there.

The scenes themselves, designed by Kelly Berry, pay true homage to the Dungeons & Dragons setting. The set’s floor is a series of painted grids on rectangular blocks, similar to a tabletop gaming mat. This minimal yet appropriate design allows the cast to use the entire stage for their fights while also eliminating any clunky blackouts for scene changes, making the different scenes flow smoothly. The set design also compliments the lighting, arranged by student designer Spencer Collins, which allows for clever effects tricks such as magical spells and looming monsters. Regarding sound, expect the fights to play alongside several hit tracks from the 90’s!

skm7
The black box style theater is perfect for a D&D grid-like set.

The costumes, designed by Sarah McCarroll, favor combat functionality. Most of the prominent characters wear what D&D fans would call light and medium armor, which allows them to maneuver during the fight scenes with ease. Don’t go into the show expecting extreme prosthetics and detailed armor on all the grunt monsters—these actors have to make quick costume changes doubled with intense acrobatics, but McCarroll’s compromise between practicality and intricacy produces an impressive set of costumes for instantly-recognizable foes. The fight with a lich and a horde of zombies is one of the highlight moments in the show, and the costumes for the party’s undead foes are no more complex than robes and masks. Trust me, if you’re a D&D fan, you’ll recognize all of these monsters on sight, so McCarroll deserves a huge shoutout for keeping the costumes true to source material.

 

FINAL THOUGHTS

Fans of the genre will find plenty of fun in this wild ride, but non-fans should also check it out. The main character, Agnes, is completely ignorant to Dungeons & Dragons, so non-fans will learn alongside her. Expect a very technical show that is predominantly comedic with a healthy dose of sentiment—though take caution that there are fog effects and strobe lights, which may be uncomfortable to some audience members.

My personal favorite bits? Every member of the show did a fantastic job, though parts that stood out to me were Orcus (Will Cox), Farrah (Jane Hayes), Lilith (Hailey Wallace), and Steve (Maciah Taylor). Out of the uncountable fight scenes, the montage fight climaxing with the lich and the zombies was an outstanding combination of costume, lights, and choreography, but the absolutely brutal sound of Farrah’s cracking whip made her fight scene truly immersive. I can’t wait to return to the theater this Saturday with my D&D gaming friends to show them this fantastic world from the GSU Theatre and Performance team that I grew up in several years ago.

The show is summed up best from one of Newell’s director notes, “The play is filled with sword fights, monsters, dragons, and kick-ass choreography; but at its heart, She Kills Monsters is a play about loss, escape, and finding the people who make your journey through life worthwhile.”

The face a fairy makes before it beats the shit out of everybody.
It’s also about a fairy that beats the shit out of everyone.
SHOWTIMES AND INFORMATION

From the press release: She Kills Monsters opens Wednesday, November 9, and runs through Thursday, November 17 due to popular demand. All shows begin at 7:30 p.m. with a matinee performance on Sunday, November 13 at 2:00 p.m. There will be no show on Monday, November 14.

Students and youth tickets are $6. Faculty, staff, and community tickets are $12. All seating is general admission. Group prices are available, contact the Center for Art& Theatre Box Office for information. The house opens at 7:00 p.m., and we encourage audience members to arrive no later than 7:15 p.m. to ensure good seats. The balcony will serve as overflow seating. Call the Center for Art & Theatre Box Office at 912-478-5379 to make reservations. Reservation requests can be left on box office voicemail 24-hours a day.

The box office is open 3:00 p.m. to 5:00 pm. Monday-Friday for ticket purchases and reopens at 6:00 p.m. on performance days. Tickets can also be purchased through Marketplace on the GSU website at http://class.georgiasouthern.edu/cat/season.

A dramatic composition of She Kills Monsters can be found at http://gsukillsmonsters.weebly.com.