SHE KILLS MONSTERS

UBC Telus Studio Theatre, until Feb 3rd

Photo: Emily Cooper

My Two Pence

My Two Cents

By Josephine Lancaster

 

If you’ve never been before, as I hadn’t, the thrust set up of the Telus Studio Theatre at UBC really is an inviting space. Off the top I’ll say, nay, exclaim: the set, props, costume and general production values of She Kills Monsters are great fun! A lot of imagination and creative effort and I’d say money, has certainly been invested into creating a high fantasy, dynamic playground for our protagonists to play, Dungeons and Dragons in. (You’ll note many a colourful cube, tetrahedron, octahedron, dodecahedron and icosahedron scattered about the place for set dress and use and yes, I did have to Google all those dice names).

 

At its heart, She Kills Monsters is an exploration of grief and coming to terms with missed opportunities. It’s a tale, as the director’s notes explain, of female empowerment though, not by ramming down your throat how women can be strong too but simply, by casting them. The show opens with a campy but energetic and impressive sword fight and from there the action never really stops. Aside from the scale of the production elements, it’s the ambition of how stage combat heavy the show is, that’s admirable although, not always so successful. A prime example would be the climactic fight scene, between heroine and foe (don’t want to give too much of the game away). The staging is impressive however, unfortunately, we’ve reached a place of so much fantasy, that any combat becomes none specific and awash and a little silly. All in all, Keltie Forsyth does a strong job of directing such a busy show.

 

Where the play falls short, is often with the script itself and sometimes with the performances. Dealing in so much imagination, back in the ‘real world’, scenes early on at least, are a little devoid of objective and simply provide the audience with background exposition. This, in turn, lends itself to a fair amount of superficiality among performances, lacking also, the muscularity needed for theatre. The physicality of Aidan Wright’s ‘Orcus’ is enjoyable to watch, as are Daelyn Lester-Sarafini and Anni Ramsay’s ‘Evil Tina’ and ‘Evil Gabbi’, bold and funny, though vicious and sadly realistic. Thank you Conservative America.  Nguyen does a good job including casual gaming tropes (though I’m no expert), creating entertaining repetitions and narrative structure. Shout out to the Great and Powerful Mage, Steve!

 

It’s not for everyone and it’s certainly not a perfectly polished production, but if 90s board games or LARPing* or ‘those’ episodes of ‘Community’** are your thing, ‘She Kills Monsters’ is a worthy night out. It was certainly unique storytelling, in a theatre, for me.

 

*Live Action Role Playing

**TV show running from 2009-2015, about a group of misfits at community college.

By Lillian Jasper

 

The theatrical magic in She Kills Monsters is off the charts. In this Dungeons-and-Dragons homage by Qui Nguyen, ordinary Agnes Evans must come to terms with the death of her little sister Tilly by playing through a “campaign” full of dragons, succubi, elves and demons. However, the wonder was often muted by some strange acting choices.

 

First the good: the spectacle of this show is absolutely worth the price of admission. Lighting, puppets, masks and costumes were used to fantastic effect. The “final boss” climax had me on the edge of my seat, gaping in awe. The set is effective without cluttering the stage - many-coloured, many-sided dice force us to engage our imaginations. 

 

The show’s best scenes are the fights. Clearly a lot of work and energy has been put into these action sequences, and they are thrilling. Hits from the 1990s are the adrenaline-fueled soundtrack. Occasionally, though, the combat scenes go on a bit too long. The play is nearly two hours, without an intermission, so it might have been worth trimming them down a bit. 

 

Now, the not-so-good: I have to say I wasn’t all that impressed by most of the acting. Nguyen’s dialogue has a certain feel, and is not served by the overly-enunciated, presentational style on display here (it works fine for the scenes set in fantastical Newlandia, not so much the “real life” action). Some actors just shouted their lines with no sense of nuance. Others seemed to have no emotional connection to the words they were saying. Though there were lots of laughs from a supportive opening-night audience, many jokes fell flat due to delivery.  There were a few bright spots, however. Shona Struthers finds honest tenderness as high-school student Lilly. Anni Ramsay and Daelyn Lester-Sarafini hit the mark as two perfectly evil cheerleaders. Rafael Ruiz steals every scene he’s in as human (mage) running-gag Steve. Overall, I was aching for either consistency in the acting styles, or a sharp contrast to differentiate between the two plotlines. Am I expecting too much from a show with crass humour, shapeshifting gelatinous cubes and berserker fairies? Perhaps. But if you’re going to have a essay written on gender and geek culture in your program notes, I am inclined to believe you take your craft seriously and will judge accordingly. 

 

Nguyen’s voice is an important one in today’s theatre scene. He blurs the line between theatre and action-movie, infusing his narratives with champions who are queer, women, and people of colour (often all three!). He celebrates the often-downtrodden “geek”. It’s as thrilling as any dragon. I will never tire of seeing badass women with swords engaged in heavy stage combat. It’s overdue and inspiring. His set-up for Agnes’s journey is a bit thin and under-developed, but in the end it’s just an excuse to have awesome fights with cool monsters. And in that regard, it succeeds.

 

For pure spectacle alone, I would recommend this show. I was also impressed to see the cast assembled on stage at the curtain call - only 13 of them - seeing how much intense physical labour they have just put themselves through. She Kills Monsters will appeal largely to the “geek” demographic, but geekdom is mainstream now, not mocked as it was back in the days depicted here (the early ’90s). Anyone familiar with the world of D&D or tabletop RPGs will enjoy the nods, in-jokes and attention to detail. Suspend your disbelief and enjoy the ride. This might be be the closest you get to a real dragon.