BWW Reviews: SHE KILLS MONSTERS Slays Audiences
Nostalgia used to be a disease. It's where we get the word homesickness from. Swiss soldiers in the 17th century, fighting in France and missing their mountain homes, would display symptoms of fainting, aches, fever, and even death, and their sickness prompted physician Johannes Hofer to combine the Greek words for pain and returning home to create a new diagnosis for the suffering of these Swiss. Now that same pang of longing forms the foundation for websites, stores, entire industries, and a charming show called She Kills Monsters, produced by Rorscach Theatre at Atlas Performing Arts Center on H Street NE in DC.
She Kills Monsters plays on a prime era for nostalgia right now, the mid-1990's. Even though I'm a little younger than the target audience, Randy Baker's sharp and encompassing direction ensures that the production has a gravity well centered in the culture of teen rejects of 1995 that dropped me directly into the nerd world of 20 years ago. We and Agnes, the decidedly non-nerdy protagonist of She Kills Monsters, are introduced to this world the way that so many socially awkward and deeply unpopular adolescents were baptised into geekery: the story-crafting game of Dungeons and Dragons.
Don't feel bad if you have only a vague idea of what Dungeons and Dragons is, She Kills Monsters can still be a good experience for you. Many people don't understand what D&D actually is. Despite all of the controversy that alleged connections between murder, suicide, and Satanism and Dungeons and Dragons, storytelling is really what D&D is. It's theater for the agoraphobic. There's a storyteller, called the Dungeon Master or DM, who creates an entire world and fractalling plot for the group of players to adventure in, eventually accomplishing (or failing) at some specified mission set before the campaign. The players get to pretend to live in this world and interact with it in any way that they choose, exploring the detailed nooks of the DM's imagination through the game mechanic of rolling dice (called a throw) to figure out whether they can accomplish the actions they want. The DM sets a numerical threshold and if the dice roll higher than that number, the action is accomplished. These small actions determine the path of an immense story that can go on for weeks and months as the basic characters that the players started with grow and develop.
The She Kills Monsters Dungeons and Dragons experience begins in the lobby and, neatly enough, in the way that most noobs' D&D experiences begin: with the creation of a character through what's called a character sheet. This sheet is the essence of the game, a list of characteristics created from the imagination and the roll of the dice, tied up with a name that expresses a totally new, but contiguous, personality from the participant. Escape by self-reinvention is at the core of the game and the reason that it appeals to the downtrodden of the high school universe of the play, and it was smart of Rorschach to put this booth here so that audiences can get a picture of the mechanics of the game before they see a show that is so infused with D&D lore. Be sure you check out the booth, manned by one of the actors, especially if you go into this play without any knowledge of D&D.
Entering the playing space is a moving experience all on its own. Ethan Sinnott's set not only feels mind-blowingly large, but his concept of making the majority of the set in a hexagonally divided map (just like a war game or, you guessed it, D&D map) with variously raised platforms and extensions into the "real world" on the outer limits of the set is a triumphant expression of genius and, as far as I can tell, unique design for the play. Sinnott has given Randy Baker a plethora of levels to block with and Baker uses almost all of them as he brings to life Qui Nguyen's intricately multilayered story.
The plot is focused on Agnes Evans (thoughtfully played by Maggie Erwin) who is finally packing up her deceased 15 year old sister's belongings after her death in a car crash 3 years prior. Agnes discovers a mysterious handwritten book among her sister's belongings. This book isn't the typical 15 year old's diary, it is a Dungeon Master's guide to an invented world. She takes this guide to Chuck, a D&D nerd at the local high school (played with great and gleeful range by Robert Pike), nad she discovers the first of many things she didn't know about her sister, Tilly: Tilly was a legendary Dungeon Master. When Agnes insists that Chuck shows her how to play the game, Tilly is reborn through her imagination and Chuck's expression of the game.
Through Tilly's reappearance in the game, Agnes learns that she really didn't know that much about her sister. We follow Agnes as she digs deeper into Tilly's game and consequently deeper into Tilly's psychology. Through that journey, Maggie Erwin enriches Agnes' initially bland character, but Rebecca Hausman (playing Tilly) takes a very different tack, keeping her characterization consistent and immutable throughout the piece. This move is useful, if less than dramatic. Tilly isn't really a living person in this play. She is a memory, words on a page, a ghost whose changes by altering Agnes' living memory of her. The new identity that Agnes takes on through her sister's game is, just like the craft of acting, as much about the increase of self-knowledge as learning about others.
While She Kills Monsters is structurally driven by a self-knowledge related moral lesson, the emotional core of the play is nostalgia. Agnes longs for a home that was whole before the accident, Tilly hopes for a home where she will be accepted for who she is, and the player/characters of Tilly's D&D game wish for a home where they can be bold adventurers instead of downtrodden nerds. But that sense of nostalgia also has its location in a specific place and time, and this production drives that home through design. Debra Kim Sivigny's costume design evokes 1995 without being too on-the-nose, teen movie extreme, and her choices for in-game fantasy garb jibe with what teenage imagination of medieval gear would look like. Palmer Heffernan's sound design truly brings the nostalgia package home, with addictive music from the era that works as a shortcut to the feelings of 1995. Unfortunately, some of that music is wrapped up with fights (and a dance-off scene) that drag on unnecessarily and, perhaps because of their sprawling nature, don't have the crispness and precision necessary to making them exciting.
The catchy and clever script more than makes up for the drags during movement pieces, and that dragging might have been as much from my desire to get back to the story and its characters as from anything else. I was giggling throughout, and there were some nice moments of genuine tenderness. Most of the characters were lovable, and those that weren't were eminently hateable, which is just as useful and twice as hard. If you lived through the 1990's, and especially if you were young during that time, you'll recognize these characters instantly, and this production is made to tickle your nostalgia thoroughly. But more than that (and if you don't remember 1995 with fondness), this production is an excellent expression of a deep script, and, put simply, Rorschach's She Kills Monsters is fantastic storytelling. See it.
She Kills Monsters is playing at Atlas Performing Arts Center on H Street NE in DC (1333 H St NE). It runs under two hours without an intermission. Tickets can be found here.