BWW Review: Cal State Long Beach's Theatre Arts Department Gets Geeky with SHE KILLS MONSTERS
(UPDATE: February 26, 2017 -- As a lovely reminder that this production takes place on a college campus, it has been brought to my attention by mutual friends that cast members have objected to the description of Vera as "a hilariously rude and wildly inappropriate chola high school guidance counselor". I have addressed these concerns in a newly created section below.)
Having spent the last year traveling the national Comic Con circuit with STAR TREK WARS (shout out to GeekFest Film Festivals!), I was intrigued when I learned that my alma mater's Theatre Arts Department was staging a play about Dungeons & Dragons. Last Friday night, Cal State Long Beach kicked off their spring season with Qui Nguyen's SHE KILLS MONSTERS, a play with a very unique subject matter centering on geek culture (and also LGBTQ issues, because, you know, it's theatre after all).
The story follows a young English teacher, Ms. Agnes Evans (Ammy Ontiveros) after her high school aged geeky sister, Tilly (Julia Beaty), and parents are killed in a car accident. After finding her sister's Dungeons & Dragons playbook, Agnes convinces one of her unkempt students, Chuck (Tommy Nguyen), to preside as Dungeon Master so she can become immersed in her dead sister's former fantasy world. She delves into the world of Dungeons & Dragons hoping to save a piece of her sister, and to finally ask all the questions she never got the chance to. The lines between reality and game eventually begin to blur as the stage transforms into a game board and Agnes steps inside the world of her dead sister's former psyche...
How Was It?
(On the topic of full-disclosure, I am a CSULB Theatre Arts alumnus. That being said, I'm also brutally honest. Not every show CSULB does is good. Some, in fact, have sucked tremendously. Back in 2013, CSULB devised Tartuffe Lab aboard the Queen Mary, which I still regard as the absolute worst invention in the history of theatre -- ever. I don't have any conflicts reviewing this show since I do not personally know anybody involved in this production.
Okay, now that I have finished all that ethical journalism disclosure stuff...)
SHORT ANSWER: Unbelievably moving and imaginative! Remarkably well executed. One of the better college shows I have seen. Go see it! I highly recommend.
CSULB's production of SHE KILLS MONSTERS epitomizes what happens when there's synergy between a good script, powerful acting, and stunning design. The result is something far greater than the sum of all its parts. This is a play where all the pieces just fell together perfectly to create a breathtaking experience.
First and foremost, Qui Nguyen's story has universal appeal. Make no mistake: You don't need to self-identify as a geek to enjoy this moving tale of vicariously living in a deceased loved one's past, in the most fantastical way imaginable. Anyone who has ever lost somebody close, and wondered about what secrets might have died with them, will love this extraordinarily unique and creative story.
Director Amanda McRaven, and her team of designers, brought the magic to life, effectively integrating the design with the story. Worth mentioning is Costume Designer Maria Huber and Assistant Costume Designer Amanda Martin, who perhaps put together some of the better costumes I have seen in a student production. Seriously, check out the photos!
The battle and fight scenes, choreographed by Julie Granata Hunicut, also stood out as particularly well put together. For a lesser creative team, these battles could have been a potentially repetitive trap that would have killed the show's pacing and ultimately sunk the entire production. Not here. Each battle was brand new. Some featured swords fights and traditional hand-to-hand combat, while others featured 90's dance offs. The lighting and sound effects did wonders to bring these rounds to life. Lighting Designer Kit Baumer created stunning effects that resourcefully simulated these epic confrontations and captivated the audience's attention. The creativity of the battles strangely reminded me of the battles of SCOTT PILGRIM vs. THE WORLD. They were colorful, entertaining, and brutal. There was never a dull moment on stage.
Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, I don't think CSULB could have put together a better student cast.
One of the standouts of the night was Brenda Orellana, who played (among other characters) Vera, a hilariously rude and wildly inappropriate chola high school guidance counselor. She sunk into this character so comfortably and naturally that it did not seem like she was even performing at all. Orellana has an excellent awareness of her type, what she can play well, and she maximizes on her talents. She without a doubt had some of the best laughs of the night.
Alexander Romero, who played the nerdy character Steve, was another standout. For whatever Steve might have lacked in stage time, Romero made up in backflips and other cool parkour moves. I'd be remiss if I didn't mention Romero's insane stunts.
Ammy Ontiveros played the protagonist, Agnes, with a vulnerability that sewed the emotional fabric of the show together. Julia Beaty, who played Tilly, her dead sister, completely owed the stage and let the world know that Agnes was in her fictional world and psyche. ChristIan Sullivan, Agnes' boyfriend, performed an unforgettable shirtless dance battle. Tommy Nguyen, who played Chuck, the unkempt and longhaired Dungeon Master, was a beast at improv. Saby Ramirez portrayed a Succubus twin (alongside the previously mentioned Brenda Orellana) with a deceiving and deadly innocence. Her cackles will haunt my nightmares for a while.
All these elements fell together to create the perfect show. Cal State Long Beach's spring season is off to a strong start, and their upcoming shows have a tough act to follow.
Who Should See It
This matchless shape-shifting comedy has universal appeal. Everyone will love this incredibly moving story. While knowledge of geek culture will enhance your experience, it is definitely not necessary to understand the show.
The show is heavy on 90s nostalgia and pop culture references, so if you love the era of TWIN PEAKS and Smashing Pumpkins, you'll especially appreciate this production.
LGBTQ, gender, and identity issues are also central themes that will speak to a large audience. Interestingly, the topic of Dungeons & Dragons teaches us a lot about society's constructed biases. In the 90s, geeks were gross. The stereotype was of a messy, unkempt, greasy and pimply-faced guy with bad hygiene who was largely unproductive in society. In 2017, it's cool to be a geek! They rule the world. They code; they create everything us hip millennials need to survive. People who don't need to wear glasses do so know because it's cool! Just as the geek stereotype has evolved overtime, the stereotypes of other groups are also open to societal change. If you're socially aware, you will appreciate this production. And if you don't appreciate it, you're probably a bigot.
How to See It
Cal State Long Beach is located at 1250 Bellflower Blvd, Long Beach, CA 90840 (this address will take you to the center of campus, the Theatre Department is located upper-campus on the corner of 7th Street & East Campus Drive). Parking is available in Lot 7.
UPDATE: In Defense of the Word "Chola"
So, first I'd like to thank you for writing your concerns in a well thought out facebook post, as opposed to sending me death threats via twitter (*cough* Darren Criss fan robots who I highly suspect to be Darren Criss himself *cough*). That's always nice.
Second, I stand by using the adjective "chola" to describe Vera as "a hilariously rude and wildly inappropriate chola high school guidance counselor." I don't think Vera is merely an "outspoken and self assured" strong woman as you contend. I know plenty of strong women (and many of them are educators). None of those women:(1) Smoke cigarettes in front of students while working on a high school campus;
(2) Shout profanities at kids in exaggerated Hispanic accents; or,
(3) Are described as "foul mouthed and short tempered" and "not very good at [their] jobs".
I'm not really sure Vera is the shining role model for Latina women you think she is. She is certainly no Eva Perón.
Words matter. When writing reviews, we have to quickly describe characters and performances in a manner that cues an absent reader into the emotional fabric of the play. I felt "chola" was the quickest and easiest way to communicate how I felt you portrayed Vera on opening night. If you were going for something more classy, I totally missed that.
When using only a few words to describe a character, are we putting them in boxes? Yes. But we're not writing novels here. Unfortunately, in reviews, complicated people sometimes have to be summed up using only one or two words. It's our job to pick the best ones that accurately describe the performance that we experienced.
All this being said, I apologize if the review stung. I genuinely intended to give you a glowing review for an outstanding performance. I didn't mean to rub micro-aggressive salt into any wounds.
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