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Review: She Kills Monsters at The Arts Factory

By Perry Tannenbaum

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The curtain is finally going up in Charlotte on the works of playwright Qui Nyugen, the American son of Vietnamese parents who founded the Vampire Cowboys Theatre Company back in 2000. Soon afterwards, Nyugen’s brainchild transplanted from Ohio to Off-Broadway – where it became the first theatre company sponsored by NY Comic Con and the wellspring of “Geek Theatre.” Emphasizing sci-fi, stage combat, and gaming – with a biff! POW! comic book edge – Nyugen’s 2011 comedy-drama She Kills Monsters is typical of the breed.

Of course, the monsters are no more real onstage at The Arts Factory than they are in Dungeons & Dragons tabletop role playing. Try outlandish costumes, fantasy projections, and puppets.

So this co-production from Charlotte’s Off-Broadway and Women-In-Plays, directed by Sheri Marvin, is plenty of fun, much louder than it is fearsome. Yet there is a serious side to Agnes Evans’ quest for the Lost Soul of Athens in the fantasy realm of New Landia. Wresting the stolen Lost Soul from the fearsome five-headed Tiamat isn’t truly the crux of Agnes’s quest. Nor was it stolen, precisely, for we’re back in 1995, when demon overlord Orcus actually traded the soul for a neat TV/VCR combo.1

Agnes, a humdrum high-school English teacher, is on a quest to connect after losing her parents and her younger sister, Tillie, in a car accident. While preparing to liquidate her childhood home and move in with longtime boyfriend Miles, Agnes stumbles upon an unfinished Dungeons & Dragons module that Tillie has left behind – a first baby step toward realizing just how little she knew about her little sister while she was alive. Taking the module to Chuck, the notorious Dragon Master of Athens (Ohio), big sister learns that Tillie remains a D&D legend, revered as Tillius the Paladin in the gaming world.

More humbling secrets lie ahead as Agnes enters the fantasy world of her sister’s legacy: Tillie was gay, and she was bullied at school – the school where Agnes teaches. Of course, live theatre heightens the impact of these revelations, thanks to some subtle nudging from Nyugen and a logical plot twist. Tillie is in the game as one of the companions who helps Agnes on her quest, and she’s a central character in the storyline. Nyugen enables Agnes to effortlessly converse with Tillius, who comes back to life during their adventures, giving the action hero a chance to vent the resentments she still feels toward her neglectful sister.6

Friends of Tillie’s are in the storyline as well, along with Miles, who is cast as one the obstacles who must be slain if Agnes and her companions are to have their rendezvous with the five-headed Tiamat. So are the bullies, succubi named Evil Gabbi and Evil Tina, aliases that are not at all obscure. Of course, as Agnes shuttles between the role-playing D&D world and real life, she encounters all of Tillie’s companions – and enemies – at school.

And since the same actors portray the characters Tillie invented and the people they are modeled after, the difference between the fantasy world and the real world is largely erased, far more for us than Agnes, who is presumably encountering the tabletop D&D dramatis personae as plastic action figures.

If you can manage to take so much silliness seriously, you might descry a distinct vein of feminism in Marvin’s directing, for the men, when not merely annoying, consistently deliver their villainous vaunts at high volume. Kudos, then, to Nyugen as well for upending this traditionally masculine world of geekery. Needless to say, the real heavy lifting is done by our mostly female clan of heroic gladiators under the guidance of fight choreographer Katie Bearden and fight captain Nathan Morris, who moonlights as Dragon Master Chuck.5

Lighting by Sean Kimbro decisively marks the borders between Agnes’ worlds. But the costumes by Ramsey Lyric enhance the fun and immerse us in Nyugen’s quirky fantasy. The tight leather action suit sported by Charlie Grass as Tillius, along with her dungeon war paint, instantly grabs our attention, the Viking war gear of her party dimly gleams its savagery, and the monkish cowl enveloping Morris as Chuck marks him as a mystic master of the dark D&D arts. Juxtaposed with these costumes, with Lyric’s fabrications representing New Landia outlandish ogres, and with his climactic Tiamat, Luna Mackie as Agnes looks rather humdrum in her functional everyday attire.

While Mackie is toughening as Agnes, Grass is softening as the resentful warrior sister, a gradual and graceful rapprochement overall with numerous bumps along the way, as Tillie drops one revelation after another. Mackie doesn’t immediately strike us as having much adventure queen potential, but her speedy transformation is nicely gauged – if you consider the difference between the learning curve of a board game and an apprenticeship for a black belt.

Rushed or not, Mackie’s metamorphosis is stunning: she absolutely rocks the role of Agnes the Asshatted. Yet there might be some in the audience who see Grass as playing the title role. They are that good, for we can see the softness and vulnerability behind the black leather and the black war paint as soon as they stride onto the scene. Their ferocity is a volatile mix of bellicose energy and pent-up resentment. There’s enough sincere force coming from Grass for Mackie to be genuinely shaken, so Agnes’s perseverance became authentic and ultimately admirable on opening night. For just a moment, the rapprochement of the sisters was rather moving for me.

Now we can get somber and sententious about the bullying and gender crises we witness here, but it’s back in 2011 when Nyugen writes his Vampire Cowboy romp and 1995 when he sets the action. So for Marvin and her cast, this is signal enough for outsized posturing from heroes and villains alike, epic declamations of WrestleMania proportions, mixed with the stereotypes and pettiness of a high school sitcom.9

While Mackie and Grass are admirably divided within, Caleb Hinkley as Miles gets to play two separate versions of the same person, big sister’s boyfriend that Tillie despises and the D&D distortion of him that Tillius can destroy. Kaeleigh Miller as Kelly and Kaliope, Joe Watson as Ronnie and Orcus, and Charlie Napier as Steve are also recognizably twin versions, real and imaginary, of the same people. For the evil succubi, Nevaeh Woolens as Tina and Michelle Strom as Gabbi, the gulf between reality and fantasy pointedly diminishes, for both are cheerleaders in Athens and New Landia – with bloodier tops and mouths as succubi.

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Amari Rice may have the most lighthearted pair of roles as Vera, an incompetent guidance counselor in real life, and The Beholder, an appropriately short-lived enemy in New Landia. Easily the most poignant and affecting dual roles belong to Elizabeth Marvin. When we first meet her in New Landia, Marvin as Lilith is a horned demon queen who is Tillius’s closest companion, wielding a wicked battle axe, but in real life she is Lily, no boldness to her whatsoever, shyly denying any past relationship with Tillie, and likely in the closet.

Mostly bellowing, officiating, and narrating under his mystical hood as our Dungeon Master, Morris as Chuck subtly changes in the real high school world as he introduces Agnes to her late sister’s friends and tormentors. But learning the true-life identity of Tillius the Paladin, Chuck clearly sparks Agnes’s curiosity – and her epic D&D adventure – with his open, larger-than-life admiration. Under the radar, he is also learning about Tillie and Agnes as he presides over the elder sister’s D&D initiation.

In that respect, Chuck’s journey is the most like our own. Forget about Greek tragedy, and enjoy Geek theatre.