I had a completely different article I intended to share, but then, yesterday (April 26), I saw a performance that made me stop what I was doing and write this article. The performance was of She Kills Monsters, a play by New York playwright Qui Nguyen.
This was a great play and a fantastic performance. It’s been a long time since I laughed out loud so hard at a play, and I also found myself choked up a couple of times. The play had some twists and turns that were predictable, and others that were not.
I’ll try to keep my review as spoiler free as possible, because I don’t want to give away a lot of what makes the play wonderful. So let’s look at it…
The Plot Thickens
It is 1995. Agnes Evans is an average woman who grew up in Athens, Ohio. She has a younger sister, Tilly, whom she dismisses as a nerd. When she loses her sister in a car crash, however, she realizes that she had no connection to her sister as a person, and she begins to want to get to know her. Her only link is a notebook entitled “The Lost Soul of Athens”, which turns out to be a Dungeons & Dragons campaign her sister had written.
Enlisting the help of a local Dungeon Master named Chuck, she begins to delve into the world her sister created in an effort to figure out who her sister was and what made her tick. What she discovers is a world populated by people her sister knew in real life. The adventuring party is made up of her sister’s friends, and many of the monsters are people her sister despised. Over the course of the play, Agnes discovers she didn’t really know her sister at all, and the play becomes a way to get to know her after the fact, as Tilly herself, as Tillius the Paladin, comes along on the adventure.
Pretty Damned Funny
Nguyen’s writing is fast-paced and quite funny. It accepts and acknowledges a lot of tropes about gaming, while making it very clear that the author knows what he’s talking about. There’s a ton of great interplay between Agnes, Tilly, and the other members of Tilly’s adventuring party, who have very little but disdain for their new companion.
Familiar faces appear from the game, often turned on their head in some way. Orcus is a major character in the play, except that he’s reimagined as a slacker, obsessed with television and cheez-whiz. Agnes’ boyfriend, Miles, is presented as a gelatinous cube, much to Agnes’ consternation. There’s a dark elf named Kalliope who’s twin sword fighting style seems oddly reminiscent of a certain dark elf ranger from the Forgotten Realms. And I think everyone’s had a DM like Chuck.
Very Thought Provoking
Chuck is an interesting character, actually. He’s off-stage for most of the production, but his presence is felt, as he’s the one running the game. Occasionally, he tries to slip in his own nature, as in a scene where he tries to seduce Agnes via Kalliope, but mostly, he tries to stay true to Tilly’s vision. In fact, Agnes’ obsession with finding her sister through the game begins to worry him. “I’m not your sister,” he reminds her a few times. “This is a game, not therapy.”
One very memorable moment comes when Agnes (who is a teacher at the High School that Tilly attended) encounters two cheerleaders that Tilly had written into the game as vicious, abusive succubi. They act as sweet and charming as can be, telling Agnes how they considered tilly one of their closest friends…even if they didn’t hang out too much. Agnes’ realization that the abuse the succubi dish out to them in the game is a representation of how she was treated in real life is handled very well and is a very painful moment.
Slowly, as she progresses through the game, Agnes realizes that the module is Tilly’s way of showing her sister who she was, or who she wanted Agnes to think of her as. Her painful understanding of how little she knew about her sister (and there are some very heavy revelations) forms the dramatic core of what could’ve been a total farce. Instead, it shows surprising depth and emotional resonance.
The production I saw was put on by Company One at Boston’s Center for the Arts, and it’s playing through May 11, so you have time to get tickets if you’re local. The group did an amazing job of setting the stage. The floor of the stage is blocked out in a battle-mat like grid. The walls of Tilly’s room are covered in the kinds of posters one might expect to see in a kid’s room in 1995. The sets themselves are modular, allowing walls to be turned to form caverns and dungeons.
It’s not often when I’m impressed by the program I receive for the play. With an interior spread made to look like an old school composition book, complete with sketches of monsters in the margins, this one was impressive indeed. It included a glossary of D&D terms for the uninitiated, an interview with the playwright, a history of D&D, and a list of local stores that sell D&D products. I felt that it showed a level of love and familiarity with the source material that was really nice to see.
We don’t have too many resonant, touchstone works of art in RPGing. She Kills Monsters could very well be remembered one day as the gate-opener. I have every intention of going to see it again, and bringing a bunch of people along. I’ll even wear my “Keep Calm and Kill Monsters” shirt that I bought at last night’s performance. If you’re local to Boston, I encourage you to try and attend this show. If you’re not, start keeping your eyes out for a production in your area. If you’re a gamer, I think this show is going to be right up your alley.