by Jess Hoffman
I went into Confetti Stage’s production of She Kills Monsters with high hopes. Though not familiar with the play, I am quite familiar–perhaps embarrassingly familiar–with Dungeons & Dragons, geek culture, and the experience of being a misunderstood teenage nerd girl.
The storyline of She Kills Monsters is essentially an uninspired teen melodrama: after the tragic death of her younger sister, Tilly, the play’s protagonist–who is described as being average in every way–tries to connect with the younger sister she lost by playing through Tilly’s home-spun Dungeons & Dragons module. The rest of the play takes place partly in real life and partly in a D&D game, and overlays a corny but very entertaining Dungeons & Dragons game onto a story that would have otherwise been unwatchably boring. The play then occasionally blends the D&D game and the regular lives of the characters in delightful and heartbreaking ways that remind us of how fiction and fantasy can help us understand our place in the real world. These moments were made even more poignant by the exceptional talents of actress Ash Visker, whose portrayal of the play’s protagonist Agnes was anything but average.
Because She Kills Monsters follows a non-geek into the world of Dungeons & Dragons, audience members uninitiated with D&D will have no trouble following the story, and may even find themselves enjoying the geekiness. For those audience members, like myself, who have spent countless hours roleplaying in the fictional world of Dungeons & Dragons, it is highly enjoyable to see a game come to life on the stage.
Having confessed my personal attachment to the subject matter, I must acknowledge some grievances with the script. Playwright Qui Nguyen may have some understanding of tabletop roleplaying games and nerd culture in general; but as a male playwright writing female characters, he lacks understanding of what it’s like to be an adolescent girl, the trials of young women discovering their own sexuality, and the experiences of being both female and a geek in a subculture dominated by men. This lack of understanding was made very apparent by certain details in the script, including one of the least believable portrayals of female-on-female bullying that I have ever watched.
In spite of these shortcomings in the script, I must say that Confetti Stage did an overall commendable job of bringing She Kills Monsters to life. Renee Roy’s costume design was superb; the costumes of all the D&D characters were especially on-point. The props in this prop-heavy show were excellent as well; propmaster Jennifer Bart clearly chose with a keen eye the various and sundry items both in the D&D game and in the day-to-day lives of the characters. I took note of the array of weapons used in the various fight scenes and how well they all fit the characters wielding them. I also took note of the geeky clutter in Tilly’s room, all of which represented the enigmatic mind of a creative and nerdy teenager. Unfortunately, the set was so poorly designed for the theater space that it ensured that anyone with less than optimal seats would never catch a single glimpse of that particular part of the set. Really it’s hard to imagine that any seat in the house could have had a clear view of 100% of the set. Set designer and director Sean T. Baldwin clearly had good ideas for his set, but the set’s placement relative to the audience ensured that no one would be able to truly appreciate all the deliciously nerdy and nostalgic details.
The best parts of She Kills Monsters were when its actors felt comfortable fully embracing the corniness and the melodrama of its storyline and script. Dungeon Master Chuck Biggs (aka DM Bigs, because he’s big where it counts, as in his BRAIN; it has nothing to do with body mass index) was admittedly a stereotypical caricature of a D&D nerd, but Alex Grandin played him with an over-the-top gusto that was thoroughly enjoyable to behold. Kassidi Jarvis was similarly excellent and over-the-top as the world’s worst guidance counselor (but best friend of the play’s protagonist), Vera. And despite Nguyen’s inability to believably capture the life of a teenage girl, Sydney Davis was able to bring the character of Tilly to life in a way that made her sufficiently sympathetic and tragic.
She Kills Monsters contains several in-game fight scenes, and while those fights are generally campy and goofy they nonetheless demand coordinated acrobatics from the actors. Overall the fight choreography of Ellen Cribbs and Rachel Leigh Head was well done, though the cast could have used a bit more practice and fine-tuning to smooth over some bumpy bits of combat. The initial fight between the D&D party and the bugbears, in which Agnes is first learning how to play Dungeons & Dragons, was simultaneously convincing and very funny. This scene also did a phenomenal job of blending the in-game and out-of-game action of the play.
Later on, Agnes fights a shape shifter based on (and played by the same actor as) her boyfriend Miles. This scene between Ash Visker and Vincent James was so convincingly and intimately violent, without the campiness that overlaid most of the other fight scenes, that I thought the scene was foreshadowing a darker and more violent side to Agnes and Miles’s out-of-game relationship. Based on the rest of the play this is not the case, which begs the question of why this particular fight was choreographed to be so much more unsettling and realistic than the rest.
Ultimately, She Kills Monsters is a thoroughly entertaining, funny, and fun production. Despite its aforementioned faults, She Kills Monsters made me cackle–not just laugh, but uncontrollably cackle–more times than I can count. I can therefore recommend She Kills Monsters to any theater-goers who are simply looking for an entertaining and funny production. At the end of the play, Tilly asks Agnes “Did you have fun? That’s the point in all this.” She says this about Dungeons & Dragons, but it applies to theater too. At the end of the day, the most fundamental goal of theater is to entertain. And in that, She Kills Monsters more than achieves its goal.
Confetti Stage presents She Kills Monsters by Qui Nguyen, directed by Sean T. Baldwin, runs from March 24 – April 2, 2023, at the Albany Masonic Hall, 67 Corning Pl, Albany, NY 12207. Cast: Ash Visker as Agnes Evans, Sydney Davis as Tilly Evans, Alex Grandin as Chuck Biggs, Vincent James as Miles, Molly Waters as Kalliope/Kelly, Siobhan Shea as Lilith/Lily, Vincent Miranda as Orcus/Ronnie, Leah John as Tina/Farrah/Narrator, Kassidi Davis as Vera/Gabbi, Jay Pascual as Steve. Assistant Director and props assistant: Marissa Lounello. Stage Managers: Mathena Rush and Ivy Kos. Set design and puppet design by Sean T. Baldwin. Lighting design by Laura Darling. Sound design by Brian Starnes. Costume design by Renee Roy. Props by Jennifer Bart. Fight choreography by Ellen Cribbs and Rachel Leigh Head. Dance instruction by Rachel Leigh Head and Mickie Baldwin.
Performance dates are Friday–Sunday (March 24-26) and Thursday–Sunday (March 30–April 2). Thursday, Friday, and Saturday performances are at 7:30 pm and Sunday performances are 2pm matinees only. Tickets are $15 for general admission, $10 for children and students with valid ID, and $8 per person for groups of 8 or more. Runs approximately 2 hours with one intermission. Contains (unconvincing) depictions of bullying and strong language. Recommended for ages 11+. Tickets are available at the door or online at https://confettistage.org/buy-tickets/.